30 June 2010

This is the Third in My Series of Reminiscences, At Least it's Supposed to Be, You Decide For Yourself

I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness. - From "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac.


I have a friend whose life has been a case of going from Point A to Point B to Point C and so on with nary a detour on the way. It has been a rich full life that today sees him with a lovely family and a very healthy bank account. The wind has always been at his back and the sun has kissed his face gently. A beneficiary of extraordinary luck and very hard work. Bully for him! He deserves all the blessings that life has bestowed upon him.


I went from Point A to Point LSD and stumbled about to point AA. My path was littered with rocks and roses. Holes in my socks and silly poses. The wind has howled, pushing me off the path and lifting me back up again. I've wailed at the wind and been sailed by it. All curses, nurses and stolen purses. Today I'm a respectable man about town and a silly clown. Wow, a husband and father. Good God I couldn't be happier today. Imagine.


I know not shame nor pride at this given moment. Just the busy business of being. But I do like to look back. Who was I at 17? That chap is unrecognizable. The fellow I was at 23 is in slightly better focus, well for a second and then it gets blurry. At 30? Dirty, flirty not always purty. And so it goes....


The deal as I see it is that we spend too much time trying to be something. In high school we want to be the guy in college. In college we want to be the guy who's working. Then we want to be the guy who's married. Then the guy with a house. Then the guy with kids. Might as well want to be the guy who's the center of attention at a memorial service. So I'm saying maybe we should want to be the person we are at the time we are because that's all we ever are. Tomorrow will take care of itself. Especially if we do the right thing (right, Spike?).


Some empty people go through life with two eyes focused on THE FUTURE. Hey buddy, how about sneaking a glance that way every so often and meanwhile groovin' on today.


Okay so I took an unconventional route to get...say, where am I, anyway?


Oh yeah, watching movies. I've always been watching movies while starring in my very own technicolor extravaganza. An epic tale of hedonism and depravity. Okay, maybe not that. It's an indy film! A rollicking comedy. A joyous romp. Whatever it is it is but it isn't on DVD. Yet.


You know we all THINK that we are the director, producer and writer of our own movie. Star too. But we don't get final edit. Studios!


So what happened was that in high school I was a total jock and total hippie, which DO NOT go together. I knew not what I was but ran off to college and that college was Chico State at a time when it was THE party school. Match made in heaven, my friends. Party on me. Then there was a career in journalism and I was good but not good enough to know it and so I was off to all kinds of nonsense which can only possibly lead to being a middle school teacher which was weird and run on sentences were verboten except this one right here hello exception that makes it a rule.


Focus on me in early college days and you get this kid who just wants to dance. Literally. Figuratively. And girls. Oh my God... Did I do all that I did? Yes, really. So much which may look like it amounts to so little but money -- not everything. (ever wonder then, what IS everything? I think everything is, but that's just me.)


Say hello to the nice man.


I mean it was cool but here's what I'd say as advice: have some sort of clue. You needn't be a driven go-getter but how about an awareness of consequences. Question mark.  I saw a lot of people not even considering consequences when I was teaching. They didn't consider sh*t. But do as I say not as I did.  Yeah see, this is the balancing act between living only for tomorrow and only for today.


Happy median. Oh joyous, elated median. 


I've seen the sunsets from the wrong end but not the money I did spend. I've seen walls move and people who just wanted to groove. I've seen people running and playing and kicking and laughing and I've even been one. One of everything. One of all of you as you've been one of me.


Sinatra did it his way. I did it way.  I did it anyway. Funny how many mistakes you can make, how royally you can screw up and still end up ambulatory. What a story. Glory. Hey man appreciate. I do. I'm thankful for it all. Yes, sorry for the people I bumped and bruised along the way, but I've been somebody. Not special. Not unique. Just a person on this planet. Better this than nothing. I'm hoping to keep it going for awhile.


Hey, have you seriously read this? It's supposed to be the third in a series of reminiscences (hate spelling that word). But I don't know man....What we have here is a failure to conjugate. Two, four, six , eight I just hate to conjugate.


Dude, I'm not even high!


I was lying in a burned out basement
With the full moon in my eyes.
I was hoping for replacement
When the sun burst thru the sky.
There was a band playing in my head
And I felt like getting high.
I was thinking about what a
Friend had said
I was hoping it was a lie.
Thinking about what a
Friend had said
I was hoping it was a lie. 

From the Song "After the Gold Rush" by Neil Young

29 June 2010

The Good Old Days, They Sucked

Republican congressman John Boehner was quoted today as complaining that Democrats are "snuffing out the America that I grew up in."

That remark entitles Boehner, the House Minority Whip, to a great big "you're welcome!" from Democrats. Boehner was, you see, born in 1949 and so grew up in America where Jim Crow ruled in the South and was a presence in much of the rest of the country. It was an America in which gays were locked in their closets, women were expected to aspire to be nothing more than housewives (certainly not Supreme Court Justices) and civil rights took a back seat to state's rights.

It was an America in which pollution was released into the ground, air and water with little concern for the environmental impact. Seat belts were not regular features of cars, indeed many safety features we take for granted today in vehicles, equipment and in homes were not in wide use or in some cases even dreamed of.

In the America of Boehner's youth there were no African Americans in Congress, let alone the White House (except for the custodial staff). Handicap access ramps at schools and other public facilities were unheard of. TV, film and other media were stilted by stiff censorship. Of course today there's is a censorship being enforced -- on the advertising of tobacco products.

It may have been former president Ronald Reagan (who did far less damage to the country as a bad actor than he did as president) who started the myth of the good old days of white picket fences. Actually they were good days -- for straight white Christian males of means.

Progressives must keep pushing forward with vigor because there are plenty of folks like Boehner pushing back. They are afraid of change of a disruption of the old order that has served them (and them alone) so well. Many of these people have complained since Obama's election that they feel this is not their country anymore. Great, now you know how African Americans have felt for the last 200 years. Who said it was your country anyway? Shouldn't America be a place where everyone feels at home?

I leave you with this poem from the great Langston Hughes that I believe captures the feeling that many Americans have had for much of this country's history.


       Let America be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again

28 June 2010

How to Pick Your Next Movie -or- What to Do When There's Nothing You Want to Watch on Your Netflix Queue

Got an email this morning from a reader who was struggling to find the next movie to watch. He claimed to be having a hard time refining his taste in films. He further described himself as having "eclectic taste." (Don't we all?) He just wasn't digging what was on his Nextflix queue.

As a service to my legions of fans (three people is legions, isn't it?) I now provide all of you with an expanded version of my response.

Find a director to enjoy. If, for example, you love Goodfellas (1990), watch other Scorsese films. Or if you liked Some like it Hot (1959), see what else Billy Wilder did. This is a good way to find a style of film making that you enjoy. You're almost certainly not going to like every picture a given director does but you're probably going to like most and thus may tolerate his lesser efforts. Directors, as I will discuss below, are a far more reliable way to select films than stars. Watching one director you like will often lead you to others who have a similar style. Truffaut can lead to Godard, for example, as  Hawks can either lead to Ford or La Cava.

Pick a star. This is much riskier than going with a director because actors have and do all variety of films and some may not be to your taste. Also, since actors generally appear in a lot more films than directors make, they're more likely to be in some stinkers. However with people like Cary Grant, Bogie and Marlene Dietrich you're fairly safe. Notice that the three examples I gave are all stars of bygone eras. It's my impression that even the best of today's actors are more likely to be in bad films. Within the work of a star you can also focus on a genre. For example with Grant there's plenty of screwball comedies, with Bogie there's gangster films and with Dietrich a lot of romance.

Check out Great Films website. This is a great one stop shopping site in looking for films to watch. Brought to you by Tim Dirks, Greatest Films breaks down the "best" movies (yes, subject to debate but this provides a starting point and has all the classics) by such categories as decade, genre, stars. It also has such categories as best film speeches, best film kisses and best film editing sequences. Great fun and easy to navigate, not to mention an effective way to select something for your viewing pleasure.

Fall in love with "old" films. This is real easy to do. Movies from the 1930's in particular will help inspire a love for cinema. You won't get distracted by a an over emphasis on technical wizardry and state of the art special effects. Story and character were king (or queen) which is as it should be in story telling. The humor is not of the gross out variety and although once the production code began being enforced there was de facto censorship, its nice to have stories that aren't overly reliant on shocking violence or profanity. If you have Turner Classic Movies as part of your cable package you're good to go. Sadly not all the best from the 30's are on DVD but there's plenty to get you started. They did make bad movies back in Hollywood's Golden Age, but not of the spectacularly awful variety you see today. If you pick a random movie to watch from 2009 and then one from 1939 your chances of seeing a good film are far better from '39.

Read this blog (and others as well). If you look to your right you'll see labels for various stars, directors, genres etc. that I've covered over the two plus years of Riku Writes existence. You may get some ideas there. There are scads of other film bloggers some, like me, are rank amateurs, others are world renowned film critics like Roger Ebert. In fact, go to his website and check out The Great Movies section. Books can be helpful but that often means you're spending money to get just one person's opinion when you get lots of opinions for free on the internet.

Remember the rest of the world. Given the relatively limited availability of foreign language titles in the US. when you do pick a foreign film in the states you're quite likely to get something really good. So perhaps to an even greater degree than with older films, you stand a better chance of avoiding a bomb. Most of the classics from other countries are available as well as the best of the best directors.

Careful. Don't spend too much time researching movies. Better you should pick one and watch. Happy viewing.

26 June 2010

I'm Ghana Celebrate This Win!

Being known as a football (soccer to you Yanks) fan, not to mention an ex player and coach, many people assume that I closely follow and root on the USA's team in the World Cup. Nothing could be further from the truth.

First of all I'm not the least bit patriotic -- actually not true I am a patriotic Finn (I boast dual US and Finnish citizenship). Secondly I do not root for US teams or athletes in any competition. I'm just as happy to see Romanians, Nigerians and Laotians succeed. My third and most important reason for booing the US can be found in the answer to this question: which country represented in the World Cup has the smalled percentage of its population who actually cares about soccer? Of course it's the US. While European, South American, African and Asian nations live and die with the sport, in the US its an afterthought.

For crying out loud the US is dominant enough in so many other sports, let the rest of the world have what they properly call football and Americans call soccer. While any World Cup win, hell even qualifying, can set off wild celebrations in other countries, if the US won the whole damn cup a very large portion of its citizenry would be too busy watching NASCAR to care.

Let's get another thing straight too. Soccer is not about to catch on in the US. I've been hearing that one since I was a kid. It didn't catch on when professional leagues were formed, it didn't catch on when Pele came to play here, it didn't catch on when the U.S. hosted the World Cup and it hasn't caught on as consequence of the youth soccer boom.

Yes, kids play the game in droves, have for decades now. But people do not flock to professional matches here, nor do they closely follow the sport on TV or the internet. Why should they? For spectator sports Americans are saturated with American football (pro and college) basketball (pro and college) baseball, cars going around in circles, even ice hockey, golf (the sporting equivalent of wathcing paint dry) and tennis. The average American has no time for soccer beyond sending their kids to play.

I am resigned to the fact that the U.S. will continue to qualify for the World Cup. I just hope they don't waste any of the rest of the world's time by doing well. Today's Round of 16 result was a great story for Ghana and the continent of Africa. Imagine the joy unrefined in that tiny nation of 19 million. Not only did they reach the quarter finals of the World Cup, but they will be the sole African nation to have done so.

Yippee!!!!

25 June 2010

In Other Words, It Sucks

I sometimes check the Rotten Tomatoes website when movies come out to get an idea of the critical consensus around films. It's not the definitive way to select a movie to see but it does give you an idea of where it stands with critics. More than that it can be quite entertaining when a real stinker hits the theaters.

A few months ago a Jennifer Anniston film called The Bounty Hunter fouled cineplexes and the odor was so bad it rated an 8% on the Tomatometer. That means only 8% of "top critics" cared for it, specifically nine out of 115. Anything below a 60% is a bad sign. Anything below 15% indicates something that should be taken out and shot.

Rotten Tomatoes provides links to all the reviews they use for their ratings. I like to scan the reviews of the truly foul, like The Bounty Hunter as it makes for fun reading. Film critics should not be pitied for having to sit through tripe. After all they're getting paid for their time and they then get to wreak revenge on the cretins who made the movie through their scathing reviews.

So it was with great eagerness that I checked out Rotten Tomatoes last night to see where stood a movie called Grown Ups. It has a cast of notable funny men including Adam Sandler, Rob Schnieder, Kevin James and Chris Rock. For my money only Rock is really funny but he's as guilty as the rest of regularly appearing in some really, really bad movies.  This would appear to be one of them. Grown Ups' Current Tomatometer rating is a sterling 7%. Ouch!

As my family can attest I predicted that Grown Ups would be a bomb when we saw a preview for it on the telly. If the preview for a comedy doesn't make you chuckle (it is after all supposed to "sell" the movie) then the film itself has got no chance. In the preview what was supposed to pass for yuks was Kevin James falling off a swing rope. My suspicions about Grown Ups were further confirmed when I saw Salma Hayek (she's finally given up trying to wait out my marriage) on Letterman earlier this week. She brought a clip from the film (I know, what's she doing in this, right?) which entailed her throwing a rock that hit a kid in the crotch. If someone getting hit in the crotch is a film's idea of humor, you can rest assured that creative minds weren't at work. (The cast also includes Maria Bello and I'm ashamed of her. If she needed the money why not come to me?)

But I do not write to pile unto Grown Ups, which I'm sure will do just fine with the hoi polloi who think film critics are a bunch of snobs anyway. I just wanted to share what those elitists are saying about the latest garbage to come off Hollywood's assembly line.

Here are some samples courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes:

It doesn’t get worse than Grown Ups' Adam Sandler sloppy entry into this year’s man-child-comedy sweepstakes. Lazy, mean-spirited, incoherent, infantile and, above all, witless, the farce — which focuses on five 40-something guys in full regression — suggests a hangover from The Hangover. If squirting breast milk, simultaneous urination by slobs in a pool at a water park, and a repeatedly flatulent grandmother are your idea of fun, I say go for it. - Stephen Holden, New York Times.


You find yourself chuckling at a lonely gag that halfway works -- not that I can remember any right now -- and end up shivering with cold sweat, convinced that watching Grown Ups has permanently damaged your sanity and intelligence. - Andre O'Hehir, Salon.com.


The new Adam Sandler comedy has all the charm of a home movie that does not star your own family, which means it's overly sentimental, filled with you-had-to-be-there moments, bad jokes and even worse camera angles. - Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times.


Horrible. I watched it through my fingers. It's the snuff film of comedy. - Victoria Alexander, Films in Review.com.


Dugan and Sandler are like the BP of lowbrow gags. Their movies are an unpluggable gusher of juvenile comedy; the good gags wash up along with the bad, and it's your job to sort through the muck. - Gary Thompson, Philadelphia Daily News.


Grown Ups is a pleasant, genial, good-hearted, sometimes icky comedy that's like spending a weekend with well-meaning people you don't want to see again any time real soon. - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times.




If you’ve ever wondered what The Big Chill would be like with old Saturday Night Live castmates -- well, why would you ever have done that? - Wesley Morris, Boston Globe.




It's like The Big Chill made by morons. - Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic.




Adam Sandler spends more time laughing at jokes than making them in Grown Ups, perhaps the slackest, shabbiest comedy in the star's increasingly dreadful oeuvre. - Nick Schager, Slant Magazine.




It's obvious on the face of it that Sandler is, like so many of his characters, stuck in a midlife rut and spinning his wheels, desperate for a way out. Paging Paul Thomas Anderson, please. - Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle.


Viewers who enjoy any single gag in the new Adam Sandler vehicle Grown Ups are in for a treat, as they’ll be able to experience it again five or 10 more times. - Scott Tobias, AV Club.


What might just be the summer’s worst movie, no small feat in a season already reeking of foul cinematic emissions. - Peter Howell, Toronto Star.


A tepid, formulaic and disappointingly random series of sight gags of the kick-in-the-crotch / gassy-grandma / run-into-trees variety. - Duane Dudek, Milwaukee Journal Senteniel.


Come on Sandler, you've got all the money in the world. Challenge yourself instead of headlining crap like this. - Richard Roeper, Ebert & Roeper.


The good news for Adam Sandler is that people may finally stop razzing him about "Little Nicky." The bad news is that any dramatic street cred he may have built up with "Punch-Drunk Love" or even "Funny People" will be as forgotten as Hitler's penmanship. - Mike Ward, Richmond.com.


When Grown Ups star and co-writer Adam Sandler repeatedly slapped Rob Schneider in the face with a dehydrated banana, I was jealous of Schneider, who suffered less than I did getting slapped upside the head by this rotting fruit of a comedy. - Kevin Smith, New York Post.


During "Grown Ups," I felt a deep sadness every time the audience laughed and the sounds of their chuckles turned into the ringing of the cash register, and all I thought was a grim, simple truth: This, America, is why we can't have nice things. - James Rocchi - MSN Movies.

24 June 2010

I Was A Little Boy With Vision

All my life I've wanted to be a film blogger.

I remember one day when I was about 11 years old telling my friends that when I grew up I'd have my very own film blog. My playmates, who wanted to be baseball players, or astronauts or firemen, looked at me quizzically and asked: "what's a blog?"

I patiently explained that blog was short for weblog and that a blog was where people wrote about whatever they wanted to and people all over the world could read it.

"You mean like reading a book?" Mark asked once.

"Of course that's what he means," Mike chimed in. "He thinks he's going to be an author."

"You don't understand," I replied. "This won't be a book, it'll be something I can update every day or once a week or however often I want to."

Mark said to everyone: "Richard wants to write for a newspaper."

Dennis disagreed. "Sounds more like a magazine to me."

"You're both wrong. My writings will be on a computer."

Mark was getting annoyed. "You're putting us on. Or do you seriously think that NASA will let you write all over their computers."

"You don't understand, everyone will have a computer," I explained.

"Oh right," said Dennis sarcastically. "Everyone is going to have a big ole computer in their house...."

"And Richard's going to walk into their houses and write all over them," Mark added with a laugh.

"No, you guys listen. In the future you can write stuff using your computer and it will appear on other people's computers."

Everyone was silent now, though there was both literal and figurative rolling of eyes. Finally Mark asked me to explain how I could write something on my "magic computer" and it would appear on everyone else's computer.

"It wouldn't automatically appear, people would have to access my blog by clicking on a link. If they don't know the link they can google me or my site."

My three friends sat utterly dumbfounded. Their blank expressions suggested to me that I'd totally lost them. Finally Mark asked: "What the hell are you talking about?"

"He's just making stuff up," opined Dennis.

I told everyone that someday computers would be small enough to fit on a table, even on laps and that those kind would even be referred to as lap tops. I said you'd even be able to have a computer in your phone.

"Phones will have computers attached to them?" Dennis asked incredulously.

"You'll even be able to carry your phone with you when you leave the house and take pictures with it." I said with growing enthusiasm.

"Let me get this straight," Mike said. "People will be walking around with phones that have cameras attached to them. They'll be some really long extension cords."

"Yeah and people will be tripping over each other's cords," laughed Dennis.

"And what idiot wants a phone stuck on their camera!" Mark exclaimed with a laugh.

"No, listen," I said. "Phones won't have cords and they'll be small enough to fit in your pocket."

My three friends burst into laughter. Dennis said, "I guess people will have really big pockets in the future." The three started another round of guffaws.

My patience with these hyenas had worn out. I decided to go home. But before leaving the group I said: "Just for that I'm not going to tell you how in the future you'll be able to watch movies that are stored on little discs."

As I walked away I heard Mark bellow, "what an imagination!"

23 June 2010

Some Shadows but no Doubts in a Hitchcock Film With a Most Unlikely Hero

It's not what happens to us that's important but how we respond to what happens to us.
At one time or another life will deal us an unfair hand. Will we whine and moan, or make the best of it?

Take Charlie Newton, a young woman living in small town America. She's very bright, out-going and innocent, the personification of the girl next door. Charlie finds herself in the doldrums. Everything is just too cozy, too obvious. Charlie reckons her family, which includes your typical mom and pop along with two much younger siblings, needs some shaking up. What could be better than a visit from her favorite uncle, the man she is named for, mom's brother, Charlie?

What magic is this? As she goes to send her Uncle a telegram begging him to come to town, she receives the news that a telegram has arrived from him announcing a forthcoming visit. What joy for Charlie!

Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is an exploration of evil entering a small American town. The evil is Uncle Charlie, as avuncular, charming and fun-loving a fellow as you should ever like to meet. And oh-by-the-way, he likes to marry rich widows and strangle them to death then abscond with their money. This is the Merry Widow killer.

The law is onto to him so he flees the Eastern Seaboard for Santa Rosa, California and the home of his big sister's family. A nice, safe middle class dwelling where his beloved namesake lives.

Young Charlie is blissfully happy when Uncle arrives. Life is exciting again. With Uncle Charlie around there's a break from the predictable routine that had her in the dumps. Her wish has come true.

Be careful what you wish for....

Teresa Wright was perfect casting for the role of Charlie (nee Charlotte). She's smart, but not pretentiously so, and pretty, though not beautiful. She is no ordinary girl but not eccentric. Neither a party girl or a stuffed shirt. She's all energy, enthusiasm and bright-eyed optimism.

In the role of Uncle Charlie is Joseph Cotton. He more typically played sympathetic even heroic characters, but he's such a wonderful combination of charming and menacing in Shadow of a Doubt that one wishes he could have been more frequently cast as the cad.

Aside from the two Charlies, the rest of the family is quite ordinary. Henry Travers as the Dad is a bit quirky but only in the way of old comfortable fathers. The younger siblings include the brainiac little girl and the quintessential little boy. Patricia Collinge as the mom seems such a familiar face and manner. That's odd considering how little film work she actually did. It's likely because Collinge so perfectly captures the World War II era mom. A dedicated housewife and doting wife and mother who's easily flustered. This mom is vacuous but so good hearted one doesn't care a wit.

So it's not surprising that it is left to young Charlie to unravel the bad Uncle's secret. In fact, no one in the family or within the town ever so much as suspects the truth about the Uncle. Irony of ironies, he becomes something of a hero in the community and even meets a well-to-do widow within it as his next potential spouse/victim. Well who wouldn't be taken in by so charming (not to mention wealthy) a man. One whose many attributes includes philanthropy.

But Young Charlie gradually pieces together clues that are so obvious to one, like her, who pays attention. What a burden to have bitten of the apple, however unwittingly, especially when you're the only one possessing the knowledge. And most especially when that truth is so horrible.

Young Charlie is left with the twin responsibilities of trying to persuade her Uncle to leave town and keeping her family from knowing the truth. Her innocence is lost and gone forever. What has happened to her by discovering the awful truth is a dirty blow. But she handles it all magnificently.

Hitchcock's films are seldom recognized for their heroic female roles, but there are plenty of examples. Consider Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound (1945), Vera Miles in Psycho (1960), Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest (1959), Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1954) and Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes (1938). All were women unafraid to take risks and unwilling to be the victim. Wright in Shadow of a Doubt is perhaps the most heroic of the lot. She, after all, is not playing second fiddle to a male hero. Also, like Lockwood and Kelly, Wright knows the truth of something and won't be stopped in seeing justice done or at least the natural order restored.

Like many Hitchcock leading women, Wright is in grave danger. As much as he may love his niece, the elder Charlie will stop at nothing, even murdering her, to protect his own slimy hide.

Unlike many of Hitch's leading women, Wright was neither a blonde nor a great beauty. It wouldn't do for a small town everygirl to look like a fashion model. No, Wright as Young Charlie was a symbol of wholesomeness, just as the town of Santa Rosa was. The town was not besmirched by the Uncle's evil presence because Charlie wouldn't let it be, even at the risk of her own life.

Anyone familiar with the film is aware that I've not made mention of the two investigators who come to town in search of the Merry Widow Killer. They are key to the story only in how they help Young Charlie and the plot progress. Anyway, she alone plays the hero.

Young Charlie is a great cinematic hero because she starts out so naive. But as information becomes known, as facts change, as things happen, she adjusts, adapts and grows from girl to woman.  This is someone who will not crumble under the weight of a horrible reality. This is not just a survivor but one who protects others.

Of all the great films Hitchcock directed this is said to be his personal favorite. He loved the idea of evil invading a small town and he was doubtless pleased with how the story played out. It's interesting then that the hero in his favorite film is not a suave Cary Grant, or a determined James Stewart or a resourceful Robert Donat. Nor is there any cavorting about London or South America or San Francisco. No, this hero is basically a kid. And a female at that. In a small town.

This hero was self made. An ordinary person who rose to the occasion under most unordinary circumstances.

21 June 2010

Movies For Those Long Summer Evenings

Would I actually suggest that a person spend part of a lovely Summer day sitting at home watching a DVD? You better believe I would. For one thing you may be living in some God forsaken place where its too bloody hot to do anything but sit inside. But even if that's not the case and you're one of those outdoor types (hmm, the outdoors, isn't that where some movie scenes are filmed?) you've got to come inside eventually.

I'd imagined you'd can get plum tuckered out climbing hills, frolicking in the surf or puttering around in your garden. Let's say its dusk and you're ready to stretch out on the sofa. Perhaps you don't have to rise early the next day and fancy a movie that you can settle into. It would be my great pleasure to offer some suggestions. All of the following choices offer two things: a top quality viewing experience and length. Also, none are depressing or require taxing your cerebrum any more than you want to. And for my money you can watch them in the middle of a gorgeous day if you want to.

Chillin' With the Corleones Either The Godfather (1972) or The Godfather Part 2 (1974) will do. In fact make them back-to-back choices over the course of a weekend, just don't go overboard and watch the third Godfather film which is to the first two as Hoboken is to Paris and Rome. The original remains to me the greatest film of all time and part two the greatest ever sequel. One can watch them in a variety of ways such as exploring the tragic transformation of Michael Corleone or as a parable for modern times. For purposes of this discussion, however, they are best viewed for the sheer fun of their look, their performances, the characters and the scope of the story.

Lean On Me British director David Lean created two of the greatest epics on film, Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). If you're in the mood for a World War II  film set in the Eastern theater of operations and especially if you like a little POW action, Bridge is an excellent choice. It's a sprawling, audacious story with characters to match played wonderfully by the likes of Alec Guiness, William Holden and Sessue Hayakawa. If, however, you'd like to spend some time in the desert, maybe with Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif, Lawrence is the way to go. Plenty of action and well defined, compelling characters here too. Either way you are going to see the textbook definition of classic cinema.

Indy Films In this instance Indy refers to Indiana Jones the hero of four films. Stick to the even numbered ones, two and four are best avoided. But Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the first in the series, and number three, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) are pure pop corn munching delights. These are much, much imitated films but their brilliance has rarely been approached and never equaled, let alone topped. These are rollicking adventures with comic book style bad guys, a charismatic hero (Harrison Ford with Sean Connery thrown into the Last Crusade as his dad) and superbly done scenes of derring do and disaster avoided just in the nick of time. Most films that are designed to be pure fun are pure shlock. Good action adventure is clearly not easy to do. Great action adventure is pretty much just these two films.

Fun With Fellini You want long, you want fun, you want excpetional and you want Italian. Look no further than Federecio Fellini classics La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 1/2 (1963) or Amarcord (1973). Three choices and each is, in my mind, better than the next. Like all other films on the list they are long and like the others you wouldn't have them a second shorter. Fellini had a lot to say and by God wasn't waste time being concise. Editing is so very time consuming and when you've put such beautiful films on celluloid as these, why bother? The first two offer the benefits of Marcello Mastrionni and a bevy of beauties. Amacord is my favorite though, a moving but unsentimental look at the great Italian director's hometown around the time he was growing up. All are, needless to say but I'm saying it anyway, Felliniesque, which means a melding of reality and fantasy and plenty of extraordinary characters.

Great Escapism Something about The Great Escape (1963) makes it seem the perfect Summer movie. A cast that includes Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn and David McCullum  may have something to do with it. Also you've got Nazis, not the Schindler's List kind who shoot people in the head but also not the To Be or Not to Be who are total buffoons. In other words Nazis that are just right -- at least for the action genre. Add to this a mass escape which includes the coolest motorcycle chase you'll ever see (at the foot of the Alps, no less) and you're in for some serious fun. This is the best of the umpteen World War II films that Hollywood cranked out during the Baby Boom years.

Kickin' it with Kubrick For hours of visual mastery you can't do better than either 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Barry Lyndon (1975) two outsized classics from director Stanley Kubrick. I discussed 2001 in a recent post and Barry Lyndon in my preceding post, saying as much as I had to offer about both at the time. I will here add that both are great Summer films because you can watch them just for the look if you so desire, worrying very little about plot or themes.

Happy 100th Akira Why not celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa with a viewing of his masterpiece, The Seven Samurai (1954)?  This was one of many epic length Kurosawa films and clearly the best of the lot. It is also one of the most imitated films of all time, particularly of the action genre. Seven samurai are recruited by the poor but plucky residents of a small village to fend off a large group of bandits who are terrorizing their town. The ensuing violence is not terribly graphic but it is not silly, contrived or gratuitous. It is what I'd call realistically balletic. Warning: Watching Seven Samuarai may lead you to explore many, many more Kurosawa films.

19 June 2010

The Most Beautiful Movie Ever Made

We have a mid range shot of two people talking. The camera pulls away and now we see them in the foreground of a beautiful countryside scene. They are seemingly motionless. Behind them are two people who definitely do not move and in fact seem posed. The whole shot, held several beats longer than one might expect, has the look of a large beautiful 18th century painting. We are watching Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975).

Some people find Barry Lyndon to be way too slow, too long, even uninteresting. Some people are nuts. To me watching this exquisite film (perfect word for it, exquisite) is like walking though a museum and admiring a series of paintings. But you get the bonus of a story that connects every painting together. Don't care for the story? Still got the paintings.

Watching Barry Lyndon is quite unlike any other film viewing experience I'm aware of. I am all for unique cinematic experiences. We've got plenty of run of the mill off the assembly line movies playing every day at our local cineplexes. Kubrick was one not just to break molds but shatter them into tiny shards. That's painstaking work which is why it would often take him four or five years to complete a single picture. Good things are worth waiting for.

Barry Lyndon is based on the epic 19th century novel, The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray. Really a lengthy discussion of plot, or for that matter one of moderate length, seems out of place in writing about Barry Lyndon the film. Suffice to say an Irish rogue of humble beginnings leads an adventurous life. He fights with two different armies in the Seven Years War attempting to desert both. Somehow he wins some glory for Prussia, of all things, and is in service of their royals post war. Young Lyndon then turns to gambling at which, in league with a partner, he excels. His marks include the titled gentry of Europe. One of whom he marries. The very wealthy and very lovely Lady Lyndon (Marissa Berenson). Suffice to say that our hero (more cad than hero, actually) runs afoul of most everyone as he manages to bungle the whole business....



In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick was not going to allow the actors get in the way of a beautiful story. There was not a wit of emoting, least of all from Ryan O'Neal in the title role. Among the stars of his era O'Neal is never singled out as a great thespian, but he was a solid performer and just the ticket for Lyndon as he was in The Driver (1978) three years later, in both cases playing men who kept their own counsel. This actually leads to a misconception about O'Neal and the Lyndon cast, that is that they mailed in their performances. They were intended to preen not percolate. Any "acting" would have interfered with the lovely pictures we were looking at. The story, with the aid of a third person narrator, pretty much told itself. No hams, this was a kosher production. After all, one would be rather distracted by a painting in which subjects were cavorting about.

Supposedly a picture is worth 1,000 words. I believe that goes for your ordinary garden variety picture. You take something like Jacques Louis David's The Coronation of David, and you can quintuple that easily. In Lyndon the series of set pieces strung together as the are, account for millions of words. But it is much more than story that we are getting. This is far more evocative than the telling of a tale. This is cinema touching us quite profoundly.

Lyndon not only is beautiful to watch, but to listen too as well. As he did with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Kubrick made sublime selections of classical music to accompany the visuals in this case including compositions by Schubert, Vivaldi and Bach.

This is a film to enjoyed at leisure. Make a pot of tea or open a bottle of wine. Perhaps some canapes, whatever you fancy. Give your TV screen a good wiping in advance of viewing. Clean those spectacles as well. Get comfy on the sofa, turn off your phone, pull the shades shut and press play. You will enjoy a feast for the eyes, the soul. Every scene more beautiful than the last.

Exquisite.

(I leave you with more pictures from Barry Lyndon, but first this vignette: My darling wife saw the film in Santa Barbara shortly after its release. Seated behind her was an annoying young man who kept making snide comments about O'Neal. The whippersnapper in question was the actor Timothy Bottoms.)















10 June 2010

A Guy I Once Knew (Second in A Series of Reminiscences)

There's a fever in your soul.

Yeah, there is.

You won't settle for contentment, want something more. You've got to feel "it" not just think "it." No going through the motions, being the motions, and the emotions.

I knew a guy once. Steven. Super distant cousin. Rescued my first cousins and I at a big family 4th of July picnic. I was 15, bored hard. HE showed up. Our first meeting. Spiked our drinks with vodka.

Sailing.

Steven -- never Steve -- was 19 and a student at Cal. He looked like David Bowie or Mick Jagger depending on who you asked. Robert Downey Jr. reminds me of him. Steven was way post cool. Had presence, a style unique and amazing. His skinny body shook with laughter which exploded from him as often as could be managed. He could go from philosophical to hilarious to political to sarcastic to awfully damn silly in a the span of a few sentences. Didn't always need that much. Steven's views were always his own, nothing borrowed. His flamboyant manner was unique. Never foppish nor exaggerated, just an extension of the inner fever in his soul.

I wanted to be like him but didn't have the guts. Nor the brilliance. Not a loose employment of the term. He read books in half the time of us mere mortals and retained twice as much. Could learn a language in a few months. Was spellbindingly articulate even while blind drunk.

So you've got intelligence, a hip sophistication, outrageous humor and boundary pushing. Don't forget charisma. I had found an influence. He found something interesting about me so we were able to hook up regularly through the years.

Steven came out to me by necking in front of my girlfriend and I with the guy he was going with. This about four years after we met. No surprise and no matter. If I was going to have my first gay friend all the better that it be someone I admired.

Once we were in a bar in Marin County where there were large communal tables. This guy starts talking to us and raises a question that had to do with intercourse (with women). When the stranger asked for opinions Steven said that being gay he had none on the matter. The guy, an obvious rube, says: "I have a cousin who's gay, his name is Craig, he lives in San Francisco, you know him?" Steven doesn't miss a beat. Replies, sure I know Craig, I s*cked his c*ck once.

I literally, not figuratively, was on the floor with laughter. When I managed to regain my seat, the stranger was gone and Steven was casually puffing on his cigarette which he held as if channelling Marlene Dietrich.

We had many "adventures" together. The quotation marks are required because these "adventures" were invariably alcohol fueled laugh fests leaving most others more than a little bemused at the two know-it-all hyenas. As I climbed into my 20's we grew closer though we only saw one another a few times a year. I always tried to bring my latest girl friend to meet him, which meant a special trip into the wilds of Marin. It was worth it. They liked him as indeed did everyone save a few of the more morally conservative sorts who couldn't abide his bohemian lifestyle. He in turn liked everyone, save perhaps himself. He loved a lot about himself, just not who he was. Though without question possessing a ravenous sexual appetite and quite open about his preferences, Steven actually tried to cure his homosexuality through hypnosis, psychiatry and prescription drugs. You talk about inner conflict.

Steven's life ended up being a mess and he died young. That's abrupt, I know, but that's in keeping with his life.

I didn't miss Steven for many years. By the time of his death we'd been out of touch for awhile. I'd found sobriety, married and become a father and a teacher. Now that the young uns are grown and I've left teaching I realize what a great gift my time with Steven was. It's no use trying to pass judgement on either him or the many dances with Bacchus that we had together. Clearly he failed to find fulfillment in life and would have done well to trying to cure himself of his addictions rather than his sexual proclivities. But that, to me, is not nearly so important as the fact that he lived so stylishly, so fabulously. Richly. I can't condemn him for not utilizing nature's gifts, I can only appreciate him for enriching my life.

He had a fever in his soul and for good or ill, I caught it.

(The phrase "a fever in your soul" is from Jack Kerouac's On the Road)

09 June 2010

2001: A Space Odyssey, It's Got Rhythm, It's Got A Story To Tell, Who Could Ask for Anything More

It has a languid pace yet flies by. It's a minimalist film. Though it relies so heavily on special effects and has a plot that would make Goethe blush, the telling of the story is stripped down to its bare essentials.

I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) earlier today for the first time in at least 25 years. I remembered well the bare bones (no pun intended) of the opening sequence and the film's closing shot (how could one forget it). I also remembered computer trouble that was beyond the capabilities of your company's tech guy. But little besides. It is such a touchstone film of the latter half of the 20th century and so talked about that it simply wouldn't due for me me to leave that gap in my movie memory.

Director Stanley Kubrick loved to have actors in his films emote. He further liked to create characters who were extremes. Check out Dr. Strangelove (1964), A Clockwork Orange (1971) or Full Metal Jacket (1987) for examples. But in 2001 the characters were as bland as white bread and the actors played them that way. The dialogue was sparing (none for the first 24 minutes of the film and little in the last half hour). Kubrick was not shy about letting his actors talk -- in other films. Here a lot of chatter would have been superfluous. In fact, why not let a computer do most of the talking at that. While 2001 is about humankind, its too important a story to let people talking muck it up. I would also guess that's why Kubrick used such a relatively anonymous cast.

2001 is a film in which the sets and the scenery and the machines are the focus, first, last and always. As Roger Ebert wrote of the film, it could damn near have been a silent. At least in terms of dialogue. But sound, the non talking kind, was as critical to 2001 as the look. 2001 without its two most celebrated musical accompaniments, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the Blue Danube Waltz, is a very different picture indeed. Other sound elements, like the breathing within the space suit, are critical components as well. 

In many films one barely notices the soundtrack. That can be good. Other times it's a significant part of why we love the film. In 2001 it is the dance music that the entire production sways too. The great Italian director Federico Fellini played music while filming (dubbing in dialogue after) and the actors veritably swayed to it as they progressed through the film. In 2001 the whole damn story grooves to the music. It's the tail that wags the dog.

The story itself is both impossible to summarize and as simple as this: what is the meaning of life? Okay, perhaps you disagree. Maybe you think it is really about something else entirely. That's the beauty of 2001. It's one of those wonderful films that doesn't pretend to provide the answers, instead inviting us to contemplate the questions. What more can art do then stimulate thought? When, as a teenager, I first saw the film, my friends and I spent hours discussing what it could possibly mean. What, for example, could the monolith possibly be or what it did it represent? I read the novelization hoping that it would somehow unravel the mystery. Didn't.

It is the ultimate pretense for a movie to say: we can explain this for you. When the topic is life itself, well you'd be mad to try. 2001 in its simplicity wrapped within a seemingly elaborate film, just wants to get our mental juices flowing. Failing at that it is still one helluva an amazing movie to watch and listen to. The slow pace of it, lingering so long over certain scenes and shots, further leaves us time to think and when you're watching 2001, it is what we want to think about. What I can't explain is how its nearly two and half hours flies by.

One other far more important question it has left me pondering is this: why did I wait 25 years to watch it again?

06 June 2010

The Low Spark of High Minded Drunks (First in a Series of Reminiscences)



I was 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 years...old. I was going to "do" "everything." There was no question but that I would attain fame, fortune and not incidentally all woman were at my disposal. But first, I had to get high this one more time.

Yeah, I'd be getting high again later, but in the meanwhile I'd have written the great American novel or starred, man, in a movie. It was all going to happen for me. Not even a question. But there was a six pack of beer waiting. There was Bowie, or Traffic, or Rod Stewart, or Neil Young to listen to. There'd be a party to go to. There'd be girls there. Lots of them. Money in pocket. No need leaving it there. Some more in the bank.

Not an issue. No issues really.

I was also going to figure it all out. It was coming to me. Answers. Not a matter of if, just when. All revealed. But like I said there was some booze and you know maybe something stronger and hey, I'm almost out of cigarettes. That health stuff related to smoking is nothing to worry about it. I'm young now and would be for a long time.

(Tenses change, I know. But it's cool. Was cool. Is.)

Hot outside so the beer is especially good. Iron cast stomach. Long as I ate something. Maybe a burger. As for sleep, that's just what you do after passing out.

I...was...just...so...smart. Couldn't tell me anything. Wouldn't listen anyway. I had good looks, charm, one helluva sense of humor and was athletic. Smart? Sure, but I knew that the real answers were not to be found in classrooms. That and jobs and stuff was not at all cool. Coolness was critical. Fun was crucial. Beers.

There was this girl...uh, Gretchen, I think. She was really pretty and was prob'ly gonna be at the party and I bet she'd....Hey, man, why wouldn't any girl dig me? Then again, why would they? Sh*t, I think she has a boyfriend....Another beer. Worry less about Gretchen, worry less about a-n-y girl. Any ONE girl. If they couldn't appreciate me.... Such a remedy for insecurity -- in a bottle!

Yeah I was cool, I was smart, most of all I was cute. I was living each day without a thought to consequences. I was that kind of forever young that wakes up old real soon and suddenly. Then where would I be? Hadn't the foresight to wonder. Too blessed with a combination of talent minus common sense. Arrogance within egocentricity nestled in my narcism. Greatest compliment I got in high school was when a girl said: "you think your so cool, but you're not." Obviously she thought I was cool. That's all I heard. That's all I ever heard. As a soccer player an adult once labeled me "a prima donna." Thank you, man.

To be good at a lot of things and not be willing to push yourself at anything is a recipe for crushing disappointment.

I see young people who are just like I was (some even worse). You know what I say to them? Nothing. If they're at all like me then nothing I say will make the slightest difference. It's like this: you can't tell anyone to be humble. There's so much that people have to learn for themselves. The real important lessons are out there. Whether people get them or not is a matter of something like maybe luck, or karma, or prayers.

Speaking of luck:  I have had more than one could ever reasonably ask for. It's ridiculous really, how fortunate I've been. No. I've got to say it this way: how f*cking fortunate.

Hey, how about regrets? Well, yes there are those. They can eat you alive. Can strangle you. Dead, I mean. And I mean it. Regrets will kill you. They can drive you to self destruction.

But just try, try to pretend you haven't any. Not a chance. It's like a slight or a hurt, you can let those eat you from inside but you can't pretend they don't exist. It's all delicate balances. Like when you're young. Yes, party, good times (even when you're old) but not at the exclusion of going forward. Being useful, making yourself into some damn thing. We grow, we learn, are useful by doing, not by drinking and thinking and listening.

So I was that and must suppose it contributed to the "man I am today." Better or worse. Anyway we're here for the moment we live, not for the moments we'll later live. Weird conundrum. Living for today while keeping an eye on tomorrow. Fer me, tomorrow got way lost. I was all about today reasoning that tomorrow would take of itself and would magically bring enlightenment and riches and I'd still be way cool, brother. Just let it come.

Hot day, beer. White shorts, dark tee shirt. Cigarettes in pocket. Listening to Stevie Winwood and Traffic. Going nowhere. But being somewhere. Thinking of Gretchen or whoever. Feeling the profundity of being high. Answers coming.

Last night I watched a John Ford film.

Changes....

03 June 2010

Films Loved by Film Lovers -- Foreign Language Edition

In my previous post I took on the daunting task of naming films that I believe are particularly loved by film lovers. I simplified the task by naming one per decade and restricting myself to English language films.  Today I offer the sequel to my original post with foreign language offerings.

Before preceding I quote from from that first entry: In no instance am I suggesting that any one of these films is universally loved by every single movie aficionado, such a thing is impossible. And as will quickly become obvious, I have not picked any films lacking broad appeal. I merely mean to say that to the majority of those people to whom movies are more passion that diversion, these films are highly esteemed.

20s Nosferatu (1922). Eighty-eight years after it premiered Nosferatu remains a one of the best horror films ever made. As I said in a post from last FallNosferatu is like a nightmare. Not a gross disgusting one that you want to run away from. No this is a bewitching, beguiling nightmare that despite the better angels of your nature you want to behold. More than that, you want to follow -- where will it take me? Surely this is ultimately harmless, it's only a dream (a movie). All those haunting images and that's not even including Count Orlock (Max Schreck).

30's Grand Illusion (1937). On the surface this is a World War I POW escape film but it is clearly so much more. French director Jean Renoir's masterpiece is also very much about classism, particularly the type that was dying in Europe. It is at once a subtle and clear film, acclaimed by many as a perfect movie. Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim lead a terrific cast.

40's Open City (1945). This film from Roberto Rossellini about the resistance movement in Rome during World War II was made just months after the events depicted. Add to this the use of non actors and the actual locations and you've got the greatest example of neorealism ever made. It is heartbreaking, compelling cinema that inspired a genre.

50's The Seventh Seal (1957). Like Grand Illusion, there are those who consider this a perfect film. It is considered by many to be Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's best, which is saying a lot in and of itself. In being so much about death it is really about living and the joys thereto. I expounded on the film recently in this post.

60's Closely Watched Trains (1966). War torn Czechoslovakia is not the ideal setting to "come of age" sexually but one often has to make do. From Czech director Jiri Menzel comes this story of a young train dispatcher who ends up combining sexual awakening with resisting the Nazis. It all comes together in one of the sweetest and saddest films ever made. It's one that could easily have lapsed into sentimentality but managed to avoid cliches and hit all its marks.

70's Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972). In the nearly four decades since completing Aguirre, director Wernor Herzog has continued churning out all manner of outstanding films including documentaries. However this still stands as the piece de resistance of his career. It is a trip. Both in the slang and traditional senses. The story of an ill fated conquistador's search for the mythic El Dorado in the Amazon jungle is a magically crafted elegy.

80's Ran (1985). Akira Kurosawa enjoyed wide appeal among critics and mass audiences alike. You'd be hard pressed to find a film lover who was not a fan of the Japanese director. Any number of his films could have made this list. Clocking in at nearly nearly three hours, Ran is grand, epic film making at its best. It is also one of the better cinematic versions of a Shakespearean play, based as it is on King Lear. Made when Kurosawa was 75 years old and after 45 years of making films, Ran proves the master's skills did not fade with age.

90's All About My Mother (1999). Many of Pedro Almodovar's most ardent fans have expressed varying degrees of disappointment with his latest directorial efforts. It is in good part because of films like All About My Mother which served to set the bar so very high. This is among the Spanish director's most revered films. At his best Almodovar is an excellent director of women and women's stories and this film, starring the wonderful Cecilia Roth, is an excellent example.

00's Barbarian Invasions (2003). The last days of a dying college professor are the subject of this intellectually stimulating French-Canadian film from director Denys Arcand. What could be morbid subject matter is instead engrossing as the soon-to-be-deceased is surrounded by close friends and family for some hearty laughs and provocative discussions. It's one of those films that introduces topics crucial to the very core of our existence.

Others: Le Samurai (1967), La Strada (1954), Port of Shadows (1938), Beauty and the Beast (1946), Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)Celebration (1998), Metropolis (1927), Murmur of the Heart (1971), Mephisto (1981), Smiles of a Summer Night (1955).

01 June 2010

Films Loved by Film Lovers

Someone recently suggested to me that I write a post about films loved by film lovers. I took the suggestion to mean that I discuss movies that cinemaphiles appreciate more than do casual fans. Despite appearances to the contrary, I am not nearly so pretentious to believe that I am worthy of such an undertaking. Then again I'm no shrinking violet either. I can't imagine that any poll exists which would suggest any answers and if one did I'm sure it would be most unscientific. The best anyone can do is guess. The least they can do is provide an educated guess.

To simplify a quite complicated enough matter I will stick to English language films in this post and provide a follow up post with foreign language picks later. Also I will restrict myself to one film per decade, starting from the 1920s.

In no instance am I suggesting that any one of these films is universally loved by every single movie aficionado, such a thing is impossible. And as will quickly become obvious, I have not picked any films lacking broad appeal. I merely mean to say that to the majority of those people to whom movies are more passion that diversion, these films are highly esteemed.

Truth be told that I'm basing these guesses (for that is what they truly are) on no research or study at all save that done unwittingly in reading about, hearing about and talking about movies for many years. What I believe distinguishes the films I have chosen is that they are all unique stories not limited by traditional story telling techniques.  They are all presented with either great verve or an especially light touch or a stylish one. That is, they are each damn good movies that defy or mix genres.

More so than usual, given the subjective nature of this task, I invite your comments.


20's Sunrise (1927). The positioning and movement of the camera have been done just as good but never better. German director FW Murnau crafted a beautiful story of a young couple whose marriage is threatened by a vamp and then a storm. The silent aspect of Sunrise (it was one of the last of the silent films) is particularly critical because there are few words on the screen to interrupt Murnau's grand visual experimentation.

30's City Lights (1931). Talking pictures were well into their fourth full year when Charlie Chaplin made another silent movie. Of all the nerve! But you wouldn't want City Lights with so much as a word uttered. Pathos has never been done better. The humor is on a par with the best of his earlier comedies. It is thus simple enough to lump City Lights with those earlier films, but the ending scene alone (one of the greatest closing sequences in any film) separates it from the pack.

40's The Third Man (1949). Carol Reed made some fine films before and after but nothing to approach this masterpiece. It is one of the most visually stunning films ever made. Post war Vienna looks utterly fascinating. The story is far beyond the garden variety noir or mystery and is matched not only by the performances of stars Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles but by a wonderful, if anonymous, supporting cast.

50's A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Audiences come for the bravura acting and stay for Elia Kazan's direction. Then they come back again to watch that amazing cast. Brando and Vivian Leigh give some of filmdom's most memorable performances but Kim Hunter and Karl Malden are not to be missed either. The performances and the screenplay based on the Tennessee Williams play are done justice by Kazan's expert direction.

60's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). "Print the legend." John Ford made a lot of Westerns that are among the very best of the genre. This is one of them. There is so much more here than the good guy versus bad guy showdown. The story has the heft of Ford's best films with John Wayne at his best and Lee Marvin at his most sinister. The gravitas of Jimmy Stewart is also key.

70's Mean Streets (1973). A far cry from Martin Scorcese's recent efforts. His films of the last decade or so are glossy, slick productions. Mean Streets, his initial hit, is comparatively a rough first draft. But what a first draft! It's very rawness was admired upon its debut and still is today. While it set the tone for later Scorsese efforts it can stand alone as an important gangster picture.

80's Do the Right Thing (1989). Spike Lee's fearless challenge of racism makes more recent films such as the regrettable Crash(2006) look like bed time stories. There are neither heroes nor villains and certainly no stick figures in this story of one hot summer day in Brooklyn. There are also no easy answers but an invitation to ponder some of life's complexity.

90's Fargo (1996). The Coen Brothers have gradually convinced audiences that they are among the world's premier filmmakers and Fargo was an important point in their argument. Fargo is a sad, funny, tragic, exhilarating film filled with wonderful performances. Quirky has been done to death the past couple of decades, but Fargo is quirky with purpose. Frances McDormand starring turn is to be cherished.

00's Match Point (2005). Woody Allen directed some of the great comedies of the modern era, this is not one of them. Match Point is an ultra sophisticated crime/drama/romance/thriller. There's nothing to distinguish this as an Allen film other than the fact that it is really good.

Others: The Lady Eve (1941)Battleground (1949)The Crowd (1928), A Serious Man (2009), The Last Picture Show (1971), The Getaway (1972), Raging Bull (1980), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Sunset Blvd. (1950) and The Searchers (1956).

Coming up next, foreign language films loved by film lovers.