Tag Archives: Top 10 Lists

Beautiful losers: The Top 10 Oscar snubs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 23, 2013)

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Winning isn’t everything. Consider tonight’s Top 10 list, compiled in honor (or in spite) of Oscar weekend. Each of these films was up for Best Picture, but “lost”. So here’s a bunch of losers (presented in alphabetical order) that will always be winners in my book:

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Apocalypse Now– “Are you an assassin, Willard?” This nightmarish walking tour through the darkest labyrinths of the human soul (disguised as a Vietnam War film) remains Francis Ford Coppola’s most polarizing work-an unqualified masterpiece to some; bloated, self-important nonsense to others. I kind of like it. In the course of the grueling shoot, Coppola had a nervous breakdown, and star Martin Sheen had a heart attack. Now that’s what I call “suffering for your art”. And always remember-never get outta the boat.

Year nominated: 1979

Lost to: Kramer vs. Kramer

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Chinatown– There are many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned over the years via repeated viewings of Roman Polanski’s 1974 “sunshine noir”. Here are my top five:

  1. Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.
  2. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.
  3. You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.
  4. He owns the police.
  5. She’s my sister AND my daughter.

Year nominated: 1974

Lost to: The Godfather, Part II

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 Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece (co-scripted by Terry Southern and Peter George) about the tendency for men in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that one wonders why the filmmakers bothered to make this shit up.

Year nominated: 1964

Lost to: My Fair Lady

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La Grande Illusion-While it may be hard for some to fathom in this oh so cynical age we live in, there was a time when there were these thingies called honor, loyalty, sacrifice, faith in your fellow man, and basic human decency. While ostensibly an anti-war film, Jean Renoir’s classic is at its heart a timeless treatise about the aforementioned attributes.

Year nominated: 1938

Lost to: You Can’t Take It With You

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The Maltese Falcon-This iconic noir, based on a classic Dashiell Hammett novel and marking the directing debut for a Mr. John Huston, is vividly burned into the film buff zeitgeist…so suffice it to say that “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” And leave it at that. Humphrey Bogart truly became “Humphrey Bogart” with his performance as San Francisco gumshoe Sam Spade. Memorable support from Sidney Greenstreet, Mary Astor and Peter Lorre (“Look what you did to my shirt!”).

Year nominated: 1941

Lost to: How Green Was My Valley

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Network– Way back in 1976, Sidney Lumet’s brilliant satire made us chuckle with its outrageous conceit…the story of a fictional TV network who hits the ratings g-spot with a nightly newscast turned variety hour, anchored by a self-proclaimed “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our time”. Now, 37 years later, it plays like a documentary (denouncing the hypocrisy of our time). The much vaunted prescience of the infinitely quotable Paddy Chayefsky screenplay goes much deeper than prophesying the onslaught of news-as-entertainment (and its evil spawn, “reality” TV)-it’s a blueprint for our age.

Year nominated: 1976

Lost to: Rocky

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Pulp Fiction-Try to forget for a moment that Quentin Tarantino has become stiff on his own legend and stuck on the same cinematic refrain as of late; otherwise it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking this film actually was. Of course, depending on who you ask, what exactly was it? A film noir? A black comedy? A character study? A sharply observed social satire? A self-referential, post-modern homage to every film ever made previously, jacked in to the collective unconscious of every living film geek? Um, yes?

Year nominated: 1994

Lost to: Forrest Gump

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Reds– It’s a testament to Warren Beatty’s sense of conviction and legendary powers of persuasion that he was able to convince a major Hollywood studio to back a 3 ½ hour epic about a relatively obscure American Communist (who is buried in the Kremlin, no less!). Writer-director Beatty plays writer-activist Jack Reed, and Diane Keaton gives one of her best performances as Reed’s lover, writer and feminist Louise Bryant. Maureen Stapleton (as Emma Goldman) and Jack Nicholson (as Eugene O’Neill) are fabulous. And Beatty deserves special kudos for assembling an amazing group of surviving real-life participants, whose anecdotal recollections are seamlessly interwoven, like a Greek Chorus of living history. The film is at once a sweeping epic and warmly intimate drama.

Year nominated: 1981

Lost to: Chariots of Fire

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Sunset Boulevard– Leave it to that great ironist Billy Wilder to direct a film that garnered a Best Picture nomination from the very Hollywood studio system it so mercilessly skewers (however, you’ll note that they didn’t let him win…did they?). Gloria Swanson’s turn as a fading, high-maintenance movie queen mesmerizes, William Holden embodies the quintessential noir sap, and veteran scene-stealer Erich von Stroheim redefines the meaning of “droll” in this tragicomic journey down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

Year nominated: 1950

Lost to: All About Eve

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The Thin Man-A delightful mix of screwball comedy and murder mystery (based on the Dashiell Hammett novel) that never gets old (I just watched it for the umpteenth time the other night, and laughed my ass off like I was seeing it for the first time). The story takes a backseat to the onscreen spark between New York City P.I./perpetually tipsy socialite Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wisecracking wife Nora (sexy Myrna Loy). Top it off with a scene-stealing wire fox terrier (Asta!) and you’ve got a winning formula that has spawned countless imitators over the last 79 years; particularly a bevy of sleuthing TV couples (Hart to Hart, McMillan and Wife, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, etc.).

Year nominated: 1934

Lost to: It Happened One Night

Say hello to my little friends: Top 10 Little People Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 25, 2012)

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What a long, strange trip from Japan to the U.S.A. it’s been for Studio Ghibli’s latest animated film. Released back in the summer of 2010 as The Borrower Arrietty in its native country, it turned into the top grosser there for that year. It then made its way to England and Australia in 2011, where it was known simply as Arrietty. And finally this past week, it arrived on our shores, assigned with yet a third moniker, The Secret World of Arrietty.

Even though I have seen the original Japanese version, I can’t truthfully review the print now in theaters. Why? Because its U.S. distributor (Buena Vista Home Entertainment) has seen fit to dumb down…I mean recast, rewrite and re-direct the domestic version, and I haven’t seen it. Now, it’s not unusual for the Studio Ghibli productions to be “recast” for the English dub; and anytime you translate dialog, you are, by definition, doing a “rewrite”…but re-direct? That sounds a little dubious . Note to Disney: Not all ‘murcans are afraid of reading subtitles, ya know.

But that’s a personal problem. I actually did have a point (damn near lost it). Considering that the story of The Film That Goes By Three Names centers around 4-inch high people, I got to thinking (that’s always dangerous). There have been a number of movies over the years concerning themselves with teeny tiny folks, enough to qualify it as a genre. And wherever there’s a genre, there’s a Top 10 list screaming to get out. And when I’m tapped for ideas, I’ll do anything to entertain my readers (within reason). So, on this Oscar Eve, I am taking time out to thank all the little people…in alphabetical order:

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The Borrower Arrietty – As I qualified in my preface, this particular recommendation is based on the original 2010 Japanese version, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. At any rate, this is an enchanting offering from Studio Ghibli, and easily ranks with their best work.

Based on English children’s author Mary Norton’s 1952 novel, The Borrowers, the story follows the travails of a family of 4-inch tall people who live under the floorboards of a country home. Teenaged Arrietty (voiced by Mirai Shida) and her parents survive by “borrowing” items from the humans who live upstairs; items that they won’t necessarily miss (a cube of sugar yields a year’s worth of sweetener for their tea). The tricky part is doing so without being discovered. When Arrietty is  spotted one day by the human boy who lives in the house, life for her family becomes complicated. This is a lovely film, beautifully animated. The screenplay was adapted by Ghibli’s master director, Hayao Miyazaki, with Keiko Niwa.

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Darby O’Gill and the Little People – Sean Connery…in a film about leprechauns?!  Stranger things have happened. Albert Sharpe gives a delightful performance as lead character Darby O’Gill in this 1959 fantasy from perennially family-friendly director Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins, The Love Bug, The Absent-Minded Professor, That Darn Cat!).

Darby is a crusty yet benign b.s. artist who finds himself embroiled in the kind of tale no one would believe if he told them it were true-matching wits with the King of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea), who has offered to play matchmaker between Darby’s daughter (Janet Munro) and the strapping pre-Bond Connery. The special effects hold up surprisingly well (considering the limitations of the time). The scenes between Sharpe and O’Dea are amusing (“Careful what you say…I speak Gaelic too!”). Stevenson later directed another “little people” movie, The Gnome-Mobile, in 1967.

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Fantastic Planet – Lest you begin to think that every film on this list is “family-friendly”, think again. I wouldn’t show this one to the kids (unless they’re the kids from Village of the Damned). Director Rene Laloux’s imaginative 1973 animated fantasy (originally released as La planete sauvage) is about a race of mini-humans called  Oms, who live on a distant planet and have been enslaved (or viewed and treated as dangerous pests) for generations by big, brainy, blue aliens called the Draags. We follow the saga of Terr, an Om who has been adopted as a house pet by a Draag youngster. Equal parts Spartacus, Planet of the Apes, and that one night in the dorm you took too many mushrooms, it’s at once unnerving and mind-blowing.

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Fantastic Voyage – This guilty pleasure, a Cold War thriller/sci-fi/action hybrid starring Raquel Welch (poured into a skin-tight body suit), could only have been concocted in the mid-60s. When a defecting scientist from behind the Iron Curtain sustains a serious head injury during an assassination attempt that occurs while he is being “brought in” by the CIA, it’s up to a crack team of scientists to operate on the life-threatening blood clot…from inside the man’s body (thanks to a top-secret government project that enables humans to be miniaturized to the size of a blood cell). The catch is that the team can only be miniaturized for one hour max.

Welch is joined in the world’s tiniest lil’ submarine by Steven Boyd, Donald Pleasance, Arthur Kennedy and William Redfield. Richard Fleisher directed, and the film picked up Oscars (for art/set direction and special effects). The film undoubtedly inspired Joe Dante’s 1987 sci-fi comedy, Innerspace. BTW, director Fleischer’s Uncle Dick directed the next film on my list (OK, I’ll say it: Small world…).

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Gulliver’s Travels (1939) – “There’s a giant on the beach!” Filmmakers have been trying to get this one right for over 100 years (the earliest version was made in 1902, the most recent was 2010), but for me, Dick Fleischer’s 1939 animated musical remains the definitive movie adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s classic novel.

Clocking in at just a little over an hour, it’s the breezy tale of a sailor named Gulliver, who washes up on the shores of the fantastical land of Lilliput. At first, the tiny Lilliputians aren’t sure how they should react to this mysterious “giant”, but he proves to be a valuable asset in helping to resolve brewing tensions between them and their neighbors in the equally diminutive kingdom of Blefiscu. A visual and musical delight (and you’ve gotta love a pacifist hero).

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Help! – Compared to its predecessor A Hard Day’s Night, this film vehicle for The Beatles is more fluffy. Ringo is chased by a religious cult who wish to offer him up as a human sacrifice; hilarity ensues. But still, it’s a lot of fun, if you’re in the proper mood for it. Luckily, the Beatles themselves exude enough goofy energy and effervescent charm to make up for the wafer-thin plot line.

There are a few good zingers in Marc Behm and Charles Wood’s screenplay; but the biggest delights come from the Beatles’ music, and director Richard Lester’s flair for visual inventiveness. Which brings me to the reason I included this film on my list…a vignette entitled “The Exciting Adventure of Paul on the Floor”, wherein Paul accidentally receives an overdose of a mad scientist’s “shrinking” serum. It’s a small (*ahem*) section of the film, but it’s memorable.

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Honey, I Shrunk the Kids – With hindsight being 20/20, it was probably a wise decision by the suits at Disney to nix this 1989 film’s original working title: “The Teenie-Weenies” (do not go there).

Rick Moranis stars as an absent-minded professor-type (living in one of those Spielbergian 1980s suburban milieus) who invents a shrinking device. Before he has a chance to work out the bugs, a freak accident reduces his two kids and the next-door neighbor’s two kids into spoon-sized humans. Hilarity (and some surprising poignancy) ensues, as the four shrunken victims encounter the various microcosmic terrors of the backyard while Dad frantically brainstorms a solution. Special effects are imaginative and well-done. While this is  Disney, it’s not as twee as you would expect. This was the directorial debut for Joe Johnston (October Sky).

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The Incredible Shrinking Man – Always remember, never mix your drinks. And, as we learn from Jack Arnold’s 1957 sci-fi classic, you should never mix radiation exposure with insecticide…because that will make you shrink, little by little, day by day. That’s what happens to Everyman Grant Williams (Scott Carey), much to the horror of his wife (Randy Stuart) and his stymied doctors.

For a film of its genre, it is unique for its time in that it deals primarily with the emotional, rather than fantastical aspect of the hapless protagonist’s transformation. To be sure, the film has some memorable set-pieces (particularly concerning Grant’s chilling encounters with a spider and his own house cat), but there is more emphasis on how the dynamics of the couple’s relationship changes as Grant becomes more diminutive.

In the fullness of time, some critics have gleaned sociopolitical subtext in Richard Matheson’s screenplay; or at least a subtle thumb in the eye of 1950s conformity . Matheson adapted from his novel. He also wrote the popular I Am Legend (adapted for the screen as The Last Man on Earth , The Omega Man  and the eponymous 2007 film).

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The Indian in the Cupboard – Veteran Muppeteer Frank Oz teamed up with E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison for this light fantasy about a boy and a tiny Native American warrior who lives in his cupboard. For his ninth birthday, Omri (Hal Scardino) receives a small antique cupboard as a present. One of his friends later gives him a plastic Indian play figure, which he puts in the cupboard. His mother (Lindsay Crouse) digs up a family heirloom key, which enables Omri to secure his new toy.

There’s something about the combo of cupboard, key and figurine that results in the appearance of a living, breathing, toy-sized human named Little Bear (played by Native-American rapper Litefoot), who has time-traveled from 1761 (don’t ask). Soon he has two equally diminutive companions, a cowboy (David Keith), and a bumbling WW I English soldier (Steve Coogan). The film does occasionally lag at times, but its sweet, gentle tone and positive message (promoting tolerance) isn’t the worst thing you could share with the kids.

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The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb – This film, on the other hand, is probably about the worst “little people” fairy tale you could let the kids watch before bedtime. Closer to Eraserhead than, say, Pinocchio, this is one of those oddball films that nearly defies description.

English slum dwellers Ma and Pa Thumb (Deborah Collard and Nick Upton) are shocked  when Ma gives birth to an infant you could fit in your pocket. Still, the proud parents soon find themselves showering their adorable (if freakish) little Tom with love and affection. Unfortunately, this happy family scenario is rudely interrupted when Tom is kidnapped by black-clad henchmen, who spirit him away to a truly creepy genetic lab. Tom’s secret adventures are only beginning.

Writer-director Dave Borthwick utilizes stop-motion techniques, combining actors with claymation to create an overall unsettling mood. It almost plays like a silent film; any “dialog” is unintelligible gibberish. All of the actors employ the same bizarrely mannered facial tics and line delivery, which are strangely reminiscent of Billy Bob Thornton’s character in Sling Blade. It’s weird, yet compelling.

Get your kicks: Top 10 Sports Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 4, 2012)

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With Super Bowl weekend upon us, I figured this would be as good a time as any to trot out my top 10 sports films. As usual, my list is alphabetical; and please, no wagering!

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Bend it Like Beckham – Writerdirector Gurinder Chadha whips up a cross-cultural masala that cleverly marries up “cheer the underdog” Rocky elements with Bollywood-style exuberance. The story centers on a headstrong young woman (Parminder Nagra) who is upsetting her traditional Sikh parents by following her “silly” dream to become an English soccer star. Chadha also weaves in subtext on the difficulties that South Asian immigrants face assimilating into British culture. Also with Keira Knightley and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

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Breaking Away – This beautifully realized slice of middle-Americana (filmed in Bloomington, Indiana) from director Peter Yates and writer Steve Tesich (an Oscar-winning screenplay) is a perfect film on every level. More than just a sports movie, it’s an insightful coming of age story and a rumination about the social fabric of small town life. Dennis Christopher is outstanding as a 19 year-old obsessed with bicycle racing, a pretty coed and anything Italian. He and his pals (Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley) are all on the cusp of adulthood and trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley give warm and funny performances as Christopher’s blue-collar parents.

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Bull Durham- Writer-director Ron Shelton really knocked one out of the park with this very funny, well-written and splendidly acted rumination on life, love, and oh yeah-baseball. Kevin Costner gives one of his better performances as a seasoned, world-weary minor league catcher who reluctantly plays mentor to a somewhat dim hotshot rookie pitcher (Tim Robbins). Susan Sarandon is a poetry-spouting baseball groupie who selects one player every season to take under her wing and do some, er, special mentoring of her own. A complex love triangle ensues. It’s Jules and Jim meets The Natural.

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Downhill Racer – This frequently overlooked 1969 gem from director Michael Ritchie examines the tightly knit and highly competitive world of Olympic downhill skiing. Robert Redford is cast against type, and consequently delivers one of his more interesting performances as a talented but arrogant athlete who joins up with the U.S. Olympic ski team. Gene Hackman is outstanding as the coach who finds himself at loggerheads with Redford’s contrariety. Ritchie’s film has a verite feel that lends the story a realistic edge.

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Fat City – John Huston’s gritty, low-key character study was a surprise hit at Cannes in 1972. Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, it’s a tale of shattered dreams, desperate living and beautiful losers (Gardner seems to be the missing link between John Steinbeck and Charles Bukowski). Filmed on location in Stockton, California, the story centers on a boozy, low-rent boxer well past his prime (Stacey Keach), who becomes a mentor to a young up-and-comer (Jeff Bridges) and starts a relationship with a fellow barfly (Susan Tyrell). Granted, it’s one of the most depressing films you’ll ever see, but still well worth your time. Beautifully acted and masterfully directed, with “lived-in”  natural light photography by DP Conrad Hall. You will be left haunted by Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, which permeates the film.

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Hoop Dreams – One of the most highly praised documentaries of all time, with good reason. Ostensibly “about” basketball, it is at its heart about perseverance, love, and family; which is probably why it struck such a chord with audiences as well as critics. Director Steve James follows the lives of two young men from the inner city for a five-year period, as they pursue their dreams of becoming professional basketball players. Just when you think you have the film pigeonholed, it takes off in unexpected directions, making for a much more riveting story than one might initially expect. A winner.    

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North Dallas FortyNick Nolte and Mac Davis lead a spirited ensemble cast in this locker room peek at pro football players and the political machinations of team owners. Some of the vignettes are allegedly based on the real-life hi-jinks of the Dallas Cowboys, replete with wild parties and other assorted off-field debaucheries. Charles Durning is perfect as the coach. Peter Gent adapted the screenplay from his original novel. This film is so entertaining that I can almost forgive director Ted Kotcheff for foisting Rambo: First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s on us a bit later on in his career.

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Personal Best – When this film was released, there was so much fuss over a couple brief love scenes between Mariel Hemingway and co-star Patrice Donnelly that many failed to notice that it was one of the most non-condescending portraits of female athletes to ever reach movie screens. Writer-director Robert Towne did his homework; he spent time observing Olympic track stars at work and at play. The women are shown to be every bit as tough and competitive as their male counterparts; Hemingway and (real-life pentathlete) Donnelly deserve credit for not sugar-coating their characterizations. Scott Glenn is excellent as a hard driving coach.

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Slapshot – Paul Newman skates away with his role as the coach of a slumping minor league hockey team in this classic, directed by George Roy Hill. When Newman learns about a possible sale of the franchise, he decides to pull out all the stops and start playing dirty. The entire acting ensemble is wonderful, and screenwriter Nancy Dowd’s riotously profane locker room dialog will have you rolling. Newman’s Cool Hand Luke co-star Strother Martin (as the team’s manager) handily steals all of his scenes. Lindsey Crouse (in a rare comedic role) is memorable as a sexually frustrated “sports wife” . Michael Ontkean performs the funniest striptease bit in the history of film, and the endearingly sociopathic “Hanson Brothers” have to be seen to be believed. A puckish satire.

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This Sporting Life – This early Lindsay Anderson effort from 1963 was one of the “angry young man” dramas that stormed out of the U.K. in the late 50s and early 60s, steeped in “kitchen sink” realism and working class angst. A young,  Brando-like Richard Harris tears up the screen as a thuggish, egotistical rugby player with a natural gift for the game who becomes an overnight sports star.

Play oddball: Top 10 off-the-wall sports films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 4, 2012)

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Okay, so maybe you’re not particularly in the mood for the inspirational locker room speech, the decisive last minute rally or to cheer for the underdog. Perhaps your tastes lean more towards the cultish and the offbeat? No worries, I’ve got all your, um, bases covered this evening. Here are my quick picks for the Top 10 Most Off-the-Wall Sports Films:

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All the Marbles-A droll sleeper with Peter Falk as the manager of a female wrestling tag team. This was director Robert Aldrich’s final film (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen).

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The Big Lebowski– I will admit that I am not quite as enamored as the cultish devotees, but this is THE sports film for those who sure as shit do not fucking roll on Shabbos.

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Bite the Bullet-Out of his myriad films, Gene Hackman has declared this unique western about a long-distance horse race to be his personal favorite. Who am I to say neigh?

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Caddyshack– I know a lot of people who worship this movie. A tad overrated, IMHO, but Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase and Ted Knight are all aces.

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Cockfighter– Regretfully, I cannot guarantee that no animals were harmed in the making of this film, but it features a career-best performance by the late, great Warren Oates.

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Death Race 2000 (1975)- God, I miss Paul Bartel. Avoid the 2008 remake at all costs.

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The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters-An amazing documentary about some very obsessed video game competitors. You truly could not make these characters up. See it.

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Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome-You know the rules. Two men enter…

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The Seventh Seal-Don’t give me that look. Chess counts as a sport.

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Shaolin Soccer-Shaolin monks apply their martial arts prowess on the soccer field. This could only come from the mind of Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle). It’s tons o’ fun!

Prince of the City: RIP Sidney Lumet

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 9, 2011)

I was saddened to hear the news about Sidney Lumet, who died earlier today at the age of 86. We have truly lost one of the great filmmakers of our time. The term “actor’s director” gets thrown around a lot, but he was the actor’s director.

With a Lumet film, you may not necessarily expect a lot of stylized visual flash, but you may always expect a cast working at 110% of their potential. He knew how to tell a good story, without relying on bells and whistles-and that takes someone supremely confident in their craft.

In his 50+ year long career (he cut his teeth working in television drama during its “Golden Age”) he managed to collaborate with almost everybody who was anybody in the acting world; indeed many clamored to work with him. It is possible, however, that the most  fruitful artistic partnership he had over the years was not with a person, but a city.

That would be New York, which served as the backdrop for so many of his classic films. Woody Allen, Abel Ferrara and Martin Scorsese aside, I can’t think of any other directors who have had such a symbiotic relationship with the Big Apple. At the end of the day, it’s about the work, so here are my picks for the Top 10 Lumet films:

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The Anderson Tapes– In Lumet’s gritty 1971 heist caper, Sean Connery plays an ex-con, fresh out of the joint, who masterminds the robbery of an entire NYC apartment building. What he doesn’t know is that the job is under close surveillance by several interested parties, official and private. It’s one of the first films to ruminate on the encroachment of monitoring technology into daily life and the  loss of privacy (The Conversation was still but  a gleam in Francis Ford Coppola’s eye ). Nice ensemble work from a fine cast that includes Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (his first major film role). The smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and an exemplary Quincy Jones score puts a nice bow on the package.

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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead-It’s a testament to Lumet’s gift that his last film (which he made in 2007, at the age of 82) was just as vital and affecting as any of his best work over a long career. Strongly recalling The King of Marvin Gardens, it’s a nightmarish neo-noir-cum Greek tragedy, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a stressed-out businessman with bad debts and very bad habits, which leads him to take desperate measures. He enlists his not-so-bright brother (Ethan Hawke) into helping him pull an extremely ill-advised heist that involves a business owned by their elderly parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). As frequently occurs in this genre, things go horribly wrong. Great work from the entire cast.

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Dog Day Afternoon-Attica! Attica! As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 true crime classic from Lumet easily out-sops the competition. The air conditioning may be off, but Al Pacino is definitely “on” in his absolutely brilliant portrayal of John Wojtowicz (“Sonny Wortzik” in the film), whose botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank turned into a dangerous hostage crisis and a twisted media circus (the desperate Wojtowicz was trying to finance his lover’s sex-change operation).

Even though he had already done the first two Godfather films, this was the performance that put Pacino on the map. John Cazale is both scary and heartbreaking in his role as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s memorable cameo. Frank Pierson’s whip-smart screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

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Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense thriller from 1964 takes a more clinical look at how a similar wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians. Talky and a  bit on the stagey side; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful pacing (and that trademark knack for bringing out the best in his actors), Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who had also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver, and Larry Hagman. There’s no fighting in this war room, but plenty of suspense. The film’s haunting denouement is chilling and unforgettable.

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Network– Back in 1976, this satire made us chuckle with its outrageous conceit-the story of a “fictional” TV network who hits the ratings g-spot with a nightly newscast turned variety hour, anchored by a self-proclaimed “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our time”. Now, 35 years later, it plays like a documentary (denouncing the hypocrisy of our time). The  prescience of the infinitely quotable Paddy Chayefsky screenplay goes deeper than  prophesying the onslaught of news-as-entertainment (and “reality” television)-it’s a blueprint for our age.

In the opening scene, drunken buddies Peter Finch (as Howard Beale, respected news anchor soon to suffer a mental breakdown and morph into “the mad prophet of the airwaves”) and William Holden (as Max Shumacher, head of the news division for the “UBS” network) riff on an imaginary pitch for a news rating booster-“Real live suicides, murders, executions-we’ll call it The Death Hour.” A  punch line in 1976;  in 2011 we call it the “Nancy Grace Show”

The most famous scene is Beale’s “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” tirade, a call to arms (borne from a “cleansing moment of clarity”) for viewers to turn off the tube, break the spell of their collective stupor, literally stick their heads out the window and make their voices heard. It’s a memorable and inspired set piece.

For me, the most defining scene is between Beale and Arthur Jensen (CEO of “CCA”-wonderfully played by Ned Beatty). Jensen is calling Beale on the carpet for publicly exposing a potential buyout of CCA by shadowy Arab investors. Cognizant that Beale is crazy as a loon, yet still a cash cow for the network, Jensen hands him a new set of stone tablets from which to preach-the “corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen”. It is screenwriter Chayefsky’s finest monologue.

Faye Dunaway steals all of her scenes as Diana Christenson, the soulless, ratings obsessed head of development who schemes to turn Beale’s mental illness into revenue (“You’re television incarnate, Diana,” Holden’s character tells her.) With its “evergreen” relevancy, I think Network will stand as Lumet’s most enduring film.

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The Pawnbroker– Rod Steiger delivers a searing performance as a Holocaust survivor, suffering from (what we now know as) PTSD. Hostile, paranoid and insular, Steiger’s character is a walking powder keg, needled daily not only by haunting memories of the concentration camp, but by the fear and dread permeating the crime-ridden NYC neighborhood where his pawnshop is located.

When he finally comes face-to-face with the darkest parts of his soul, and the inevitable breakdown ensues, it’s expressed in a literal “silent scream” that is the most astonishing moment in Steiger’s impressive canon. Morton S. Fine and David Friedkin adapted their screenplay from Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel. Lumet’s intense character study is a prime example of the “social realism” movement in  American film that flourished for a period in the early 1960s.

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Prince of the City-Lumet revisited the subject of New York City police corruption in this powerfully acted piece based on the true story of narcotics detective Robert Leuci (“Daniel Ciello” in the film), whose life got completely turned upside down after he agreed to cooperate with a special commission. Treat Williams delivers his finest dramatic performance to date as the conflicted cop, who is initially promised that he will never be forced to “give up” any of his partners in the course of the investigation. But you know what they say about the road to Hell being paved with “good intentions”, right?

This is one of the best films ever made about big city politics (prior to HBO’s outstanding series, The Wire, which I gleaned to be a direct descendant). Superb performances from everyone in the sizable cast (especially Jerry Orbach) Lumet co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Presson Allen, which they adapted from Richard Daley’s book.

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Serpico-Sidney Lumet and Al Pacino go together like soup and sandwich, and this 1973 collaboration between director and star (their first) was the one that set the table. Pacino gets to chew a lot of scenery here as Frank Serpico, an altruistic NYC cop who helps expose the rampant corruption within the department (much to the chagrin of his fellow cops, who come to regard him as a pariah).

As per usual, Lumet wrings top-notch performances from his actors, and makes excellent use of NYC locales (captured in all their gritty glory by DP Arthur J. Ornitz, who did the cinematography for a number of “quintessentially New York” films, including A Thousand Clowns, The World of Henry Orient, The Boys in the Band, Next Stop Greenwich Village and An Unmarried Woman). Writers Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler adapted from the book by Peter Maas.

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12 Angry Men-This is the film that put Lumet on the map as a feature film director. The narrative setup is simple. A Latino boy is on trial, accused of killing his father. His fate lies in the hands of a 12-man jury. Since we are not presented with many details about the trial itself, the film’s dramatic tension lies in the hands of the one juror who happens to hold a dissenting opinion (Henry Fonda). His subsequent attempt to bring the other eleven around to his way of thinking makes for an amazingly riveting drama (despite of how static it might read on paper). The list of actors portraying the “angry men” reads like a Who’s Who of dramatic heavyweights-because it is (imagine Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden and Ed Begley all cooped up in a hot stuffy room, and all very cranky-can you just smell the ham burning?).

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The Verdict– Lumet returned to the courtroom in this outstanding 1982 drama, armed with an incredible cast and a killer David Mamet screenplay. Paul Newman gives one of his career-best performances as a burned-out alcoholic “ambulance chaser” who gets a shot at redemption when he takes a medical malpractice case to trial (after initially planning to take the path of least resistance by going for a quick and dirty settlement). Jack Warden also shines as his best friend and fellow lawyer who helps him build his case. James Mason is also at the top of his game as the opposing attorney (“That guy’s the Prince of fuckin’ Darkness,” Warden warns Newman, in a wonderfully droll Mamet line reading). Charlotte Rampling is on hand as well, playing her duplicitous character with aplomb. Nice use of the autumnal Boston locales by DP Andrzej Bartkowiak.

Encore! 10 more: Q&A, Family Business, Running on Empty, Garbo Talks, Deathtrap, Equus, Murder on the Orient Express, The Offence, The Deadly Affair, The Hill.

Oh, mama…can this really be the end? – Top 10 End of the World Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 25, 2009)

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Sometimes, you see a little kicker on the evening news that puts everything into perspective. Such was the discovery this past Monday that an “object” has recently bombarded the planet Jupiter. As of this writing, experts are not sure if it was a comet, an asteroid, or whatever-but it was a doozey. By initial accounts, the impact area is nearly the size of the Earth. I’m no astronomer, but that is one big-ass event. It just makes our silly little concerns about religion, politics, war and commerce all seem so…silly, dunnit?

At any rate, the entertainment value of Armageddon (hey-there’s an upside to everything) certainly has not been lost on film makers over the years, whether it is precipitated by vengeful deities, comets, meteors, aliens, plagues or mankind’s curious propensity for continuing to seek new and improved ways of ensuring its own mass destruction. With that joyful thought in mind, I’ve assembled my Top 10 End of the World Movies, each with a suggested co-feature (make it a Theme Night!). As per usual, I am presenting the list alphabetically, in no particular preferential order. So enjoy, er…while you still can.

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The Book of Life

The WMD: An angry God

Hal Hartley’s stylish, post-modernist re-imagining of Armageddon as an existential boardroom soap may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I find it compelling. Set on New Year’s Eve, 1999, the story joins a Yuppified Jesus (Martin Donovan) as he jets in to New York with his personal assistant, Magdalena (British alt-rocker P.J. Harvey) in tow (they check in to their hotel as “Mr. and Mrs. DW Griffith”).

This is anything but your typical business trip, as J.C. is in town to do Dad’s bidding re: the Day of Judgment. The kid has his doubts, however about all this “divine vengeance crap”. His corporate rival, Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) is also on hand to do hostile takeovers of as many souls as he can during the world’s final few hours.

Although it is not a “comedy” per se, I found the idea of Jesus carrying the Book of Life around on his laptop pretty goddam funny (“Do you want to open the 5th Seal? Yes or Cancel”). Clocking in at 63 minutes, it may be more akin to a one-act play than a full feature film narrative, but it’s deep in its own way.

Double bill: w/ The Rapture

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The Day the Earth Caught Fire

The WMD: Nuclear mishap

Written and directed by Val Guest, this cerebral mix of conspiracy a-go-go and sci-fi has always been a personal favorite. Simultaneous nuclear testing by the U.S. and Soviets triggers an alarmingly rapid shift in the Earth’s climate. As London’s weather turns more tropical by the hour, a Daily Express reporter (Peter Stenning) begins to suspect that the British government is not being 100% forthcoming on the possibly imminent fate of the world. Along the way, Stenning has some steamy scenes with his love interest (sexy Janet Munro). The film is more noteworthy for its smart, snappy patter than its run-of-the-mill f/x, but still delivers a compelling story. Co-starring master scene-stealer Leo McKern.

Double bill: w/ Until the End of the World

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Dr. Strangelove

The WMD: The Doomsday Machine

“Mein fuhrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the propensity for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why they bothered to make this shit up.

In case you are one of the three people reading this who have never seen the film, it’s about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…“funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity (and oblivion) ensues. You will never see a cast like this again: Peter Sellers (playing three major characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull (who can be seen breaking character as the Russian ambassador and cracking up during the scene where Strangelove’s prosthetic arm goes awry).

There are so many quotable lines, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks. I never tire of this film.

Double bill: w/ Fail Safe

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The WMD: Alien “highway” crew

The belated 2005 adaptation of satirist Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi radio-to-book-to TV series made a few old school fans (like me) a little twitchy at first, but director Garth Jennings does an admirable job of condensing the story down to an entertaining feature length film. It’s the only “end of the world” scenario I know of where the human race buys it as the result of bureaucratic oversight (the Earth is to be “demolished” for construction of a hyperspace highway bypass; unfortunately, the requisite public notice is posted in an obscure basement-on a different planet).

Adams (who died in 2001) was credited as co-screenwriter (with Karey Kirkpatrick); but I wonder if he had final approval, as the wry “Britishness” of some of the key one liners from the original series have been dumbed down. Still, it’s a quite watchable affair, thanks to the enthusiastic cast, the imaginative special effects and (mostly) faithful adherence to the original ethos.

Double bill: w/ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Original 1981 BBC-TV series)

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Last Night

The WMD: Nebulous cosmic event

A profoundly moving low-budget wonder from writer/director/star Don McKellar. The story intimately focuses on several Toronto residents and how they choose to spend (what they know to be) their final 6 hours. You may recognize McKellar from his work with director Atom Egoyan. He must have been taking notes, because as a director, McKellar has inherited Egoyan’s quiet, deliberate way of drawing you straight into the emotional core of his characters.

Although generally somber in tone, there are some laugh-out-loud moments, funny in a wry, gallows-humor way. The powerful final scene packs an almost indescribably emotional wallop. You know you’re watching a Canadian version of the Apocalypse when the #4 song on the “Top 500 of All Time” is by… Burton Cummings!

Fantastic ensemble work from Sandra Oh, Genevieve Bujold, Callum Keith Rennie and Tracy Wright.  McKellar also throws fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg into the mix in a small role.

Double bill: w/ Night of the Comet

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Miracle Mile

The WMD: Nuclear exchange

Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted 90-minute thriller offers more heart-pounding excitement (and more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this one (his only other credit is the guilty pleasure sci-fi adventure Cherry 2000).

Double Bill: w/ One Night Stand (1984)

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Testament

The WMD: Nuclear fallout

Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film was released to theatres and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberate approach, but pulls no punches. Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the histrionics and melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

Double bill: w/ On the Beach

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The Quiet Earth

The WMD: Science gone awry (whoopsie!)

Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers a tour de force performance in this 1985 New Zealand import, which has garnered a cult following. He plays a scientist who may (or may not) have had a hand in a government research project mishap that has apparently wiped out everyone on Earth except him. The plot thickens when he discovers that there are at least two other survivors-a man and a woman.

The three-character dynamic is reminiscent of a 1959 nuclear holocaust tale called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it’s safe to say that the similarities end there. By the time you reach the mind-blowing finale, you’ll find yourself closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s territory (Solaris). Director Geoff Murphy never topped this effort; although his 1992 film Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a time-traveling bounty hunter, is worth a peek.

Double Bill: w/ The Omega Man

…or one from column “B”: The Last Man on Earth, I Am Legend

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The Andromeda Strain

The WMD: Bacteriological scourge

What’s the scariest monster of them all? It’s the one you cannot see. I’ve always considered this 1971 Robert Wise film to be the most faithful Michael Crichton book-to-screen adaptation. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that reproduces itself at an alarming speed. With its atmosphere of claustrophobic urgency (all the scientists are essentially trapped in a sealed underground laboratory until they can find a way to destroy the microbial “intruder”) it could be seen as a precursor to Alien. It’s a nail-biter from start to finish. Nelson Gidding adapted the script from Crichton’s novel. The 2008 TV movie version was a real snoozer, by the way.

Double bill: w/ 28 Days Later

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When Worlds Collide

The WMD: Another celestial body

There’s a brand new star in the sky, with its own orbiting planet. There’s good news and bad news regarding this exciting discovery. The good news: You don’t need a telescope in order to examine them in exquisite detail. The bad news: See “the good news”.

That’s the premise of this involving 1951 sci-fi yarn about an imminent collision between said rogue sun and the Earth. The scientist who makes the discovery makes an earnest attempt to warn world leaders, but is ultimately dismissed as a Chicken Little. Undaunted, he undertakes a privately-funded project to build an escape craft that can only carry several dozen of the best and the brightest to safety.

Recalling Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the film examines the dichotomous conflict of human nature in extreme survival situations, which helps this one rise above the cheese of many other 1950s sci-fi flicks (with the possible exception of a clunky Noah’s Ark allusion). It sports pretty decent special effects for its time; especially depicting a flooded NYC (it was produced by the legendary George Pal).

Double Bill: w/ Deep Impact

In a rit of fealous jage: A tribute to Blake Edwards

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2010)

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When I heard that director Blake Edwards had died earlier this week, at 88, I felt like I had lost an old friend. I grew up watching his films. He dabbled in many genres, and was proficient in all, but especially adept at comedy. He was one of a handful of filmmakers who could sell me on slapstick; he had a knack for choreographing sequences of pratfalls (executed with balletic precision) that became funnier and funnier the longer they ran on. He was a superb screenwriter as well. Here are my top ten picks from the Blake Edwards oeuvre (37 feature films from 1955-1995), alphabetically:

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s-Edwards turned Truman Capote’s novel about a farm girl who moves to the Big Apple and reinvents herself as a Manhattan socialite into a damn near perfect film (Mickey Rooney’s unfortunate role as a  racial stereotype aside). Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard (both at the peak of their attractiveness) are a stunning screen couple. A funny, sophisticated, and bittersweet story, wonderfully directed, acted, written (George Axelrod adapted) and set to a great Henry Mancini score (it wasn’t the first time Edwards collaborated with the composer, and certainly not the last-they worked together on close to 30 films over several decades).

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Days of Wine and Roses-This shattering drama was jarring for its time (apparently prompting a rash of opening-week walkouts by Jack Lemmon fans expecting another comic role). The film still packs a wallop in its depiction of a couple (Lemmon and Lee Remick) and their descent into a co-dependent alcoholic hell. Lemmon and the frequently underrated Remick deliver their finest performances.

Everyone remembers the  “greenhouse scene”, but for me the most memorable moment arrives in the “padded room” scene, with a sweating, screaming, strait-jacketed Lemmon writhing in withdrawal. Call it “method” or whatever, but it remains one of the top examples of an actor completely “in the moment” ever captured on film. Henry Mancini won an Oscar for the lovely theme song.

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The Great Race– While this 1965 Edwards comedy-adventure about a turn-of-the-century New York to Paris auto race begins to overstay its welcome about 2/3 of the way through, after revisiting it recently, I have to say that the laughs have held up quite well. Clocking in at a whopping 160 minutes, it was released at a time when overblown, big-budgeted comedies with huge international casts were in vogue (especially in the wake of the mega-hit It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in 1963). But what a cast-Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk and Keenan Wynn  (to name a few).

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The Party-Director Edwards and mercurial acting genius Peter Sellers paired up many times, but I think this 1968 gem is not only their best collaboration, but frame-for-frame, one of the all-time great screen comedies.

Sellers is Hrundi V. Bakshi, an Indian actor with a bit part in a Hollywood war epic who somehow manages to ruin an expensive day of shooting by (riotously) overplaying his death scene. The exasperated director calls for the actor’s head, and Bakshi’s name ends up on a studio exec’s hurriedly scribbled “to do” list. Through a comedy of errors, Bakshi’s name is instead added to a guest list for a party being organized by the executive’s wife. The bumbling (if well-meaning) Bakshi proceeds to make a riotous shambles of the event.

Sellers’ knack for physical comedy is right up there with the best of Chaplin and Keaton. A guitar-wielding Claudine Longet is also on board as the love interest, and purrs a jazzy number in one scene.

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S.O.B.-Whereas The Party was a relatively benign poke at Tinseltown, this 1981 dramedy offers a  more jaundiced view of the Hollywood machine, which has chewed up and spit out a producer (Richard Mulligan). He flips out after his latest film, a high-budget, G-rated musical starring his singer-actress wife (Julie Andrews) tanks with critics and flops at the box office.  Desperate to salvage it, he comes up with an idea to buy the film back from the studio, and “sex it up” by convincing his wife to re-shoot her part, including nude scenes, which would turn her “wholesome” image on its head.

Edwards’ screenplay is supposedly laced with autobiographical touches (as you may well  know, Edwards was married to a certain singer-actress…whose name rhymes with “Julie Andrews”). It’s Edwards’ most cynical film, but also quite funny. The great cast includes William Holden (sadly, his final role), Robert Vaughn, Robert Webber, Larry Hagman, Loretta Swit, and Shelly Winters. Robert Preston is priceless as a “Dr. Feelgood” MD. It’s worth the price of admission to hear a ‘luded-up Andrews utter her immortal line: “Oh…Hi, Polly! Come to see my boobies?”

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A Shot in the Dark-This second outing in the “Pink Panther” series is my favorite entry. The fact that the lovely Elke Sommer is in this film has no bearing on my appraisal. I wanted to make that clear. Okay, maybe it has a little bearing. Sommer is Maria Gambrelli, the maid who might have “dunnit”. That is, shot her rich employer’s limo driver. Or did she? It’s up to Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers) to figure that out, as more victims start dropping like flies.

There are so many great gags and classic exchanges in this one, including a memorable sequence in a nudist colony. Herbert Lom (who had previously co-starred with Sellers in several classic Ealing Studios comedies) introduces the character of Chief Inspector Dreyfus, who would become a fixture in subsequent sequels.

I feel this is the best one of the series because it strikes a perfect middle ground between the first film (which actually played it more sophisticated and fairly straight, as did Sellers) and the later films, which, while quite entertaining, became more and more far-fetched and cartoon-like as the franchise found more box office success.

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The Tamarind Seed-A largely forgotten, but absorbing and worthwhile Edwards film from 1974, this was his nod to cold war spy thrillers like From Russia With Love, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Deadly Affair and Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (the latter film which, interestingly, also featured Julie Andrews). Andrews co-stars here with Omar Sharif. She is a British civil servant, he is a Russian spy, and, well, you can guess what happens next. And yes, it does create “conflicts of interest” for the lovers, which makes for intrigue and suspense, with a sultry Caribbean backdrop. Edwards adapted the screenplay from the novel by Evelyn Anthony. Unfortunately, there is no Region 1 DVD release; perhaps there will be now?

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10– Talk about a “perfect” storm-Blake Edwards’ writing and directing skills, Dudley Moore’s impeccable comic timing, and Bo Derek’s, erm, well…Bo Derek-ness. Moore is a 40-something L.A. songwriter with a devoted girlfriend (Julie Andrews) and a long time friend/songwriting partner (Robert Webber) who both dutifully warn him that they can see signs of a looming mid-life crisis. After spotting  a beautiful young woman (Derek), he becomes obsessed with her. Temporarily insane with unrequited lust, he decides to follow her (and her boyfriend) to Mexico, where they are headed for a holiday. Much middle aged craziness (and hilarity) ensues.

Moore is so dead-on funny that you don’t really stop to consider that his character can be seen as a creepy stalker at times. The narrative does take an interesting about-face about 2/3 of the way through, turning into an introspective and melancholic morality tale. It is vastly entertaining, however, with excellent performances by all. Brian Dennehy is a standout as a philosophical bartender.

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Victor/Victoria-A fluffy but entertaining rom-com starring (wait for it) Julie Andrews, who plays an underemployed, classically-trained soprano scraping by in 1930s Paris. She befriends another unemployed singer (Robert Preston), who was recently booted from his gig at a cabaret. He cooks up a scheme that he is convinced will get them both out of the poorhouse: He will be her manager, and she will pose as a “he”, who impersonates a “she” onstage. Get it? Genius! Are there complications? Of course there are-and that’s when the fun starts. James Garner and Lesley Ann Warren are wonderful. Henry Mancini is on board again with a great musical score. Triple-threat Andrews sings, acts and dances with her usual aplomb.

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Wild Rovers-Blake Edwards made a western? Yes, he did, and not a half-bad one at that. A world-weary cowhand (William Holden) convinces a younger (and somewhat dim) co-worker (Ryan O’Neal) that since it’s obvious that they’ll never really get ahead in their present profession, they should give bank robbery a shot. They get away with it, but then find themselves on the run, oddly, not so much from the law, but from their former employer (Karl Malden), who is mightily offended that anyone who worked for him would do such a thing. Episodic and leisurely paced, but ambles along quite agreeably, thanks to the charms of the two leads, and the beautiful, expansive photography by Philip Lathrop. Ripe for rediscovery.

10 more to explore: Operation Petticoat, Experiment in Terror, The Pink Panther, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, The Carey Treatment, The Return of the Pink Panther, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Micki + Maude, Blind Date, Switch.

Let’s see what’s on the slab: Top 10 Midnight Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 29, 2010)

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Tonight, I thought I’d paw through the “midnight movie” section of my library and assemble my Top 10 picks for your All Hallows Eve holiday “cheer”. As I have around 150 titles in this genre, it wasn’t easy narrowing it down; since my tastes tend to run toward the offbeat in general, this was akin to asking someone to choose their favorite child (the hell I go through for you people). Keep in mind-when it comes to picking favorite “cult” films, the axiom “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure” comes into play. As per usual, presented in alphabetical order:

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Eating Raoul– The late great Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000, Lust in the Dust, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills) directed and co-wrote this twisted and hilarious social satire. Bartel and his frequent screen partner Mary Waronov play Paul and Mary Bland, a prudish, buttoned-down couple who are horrified to discover that their apartment complex is home to an enclave of “swingers”.

Paul is even more shocked when he comes home from his wine store job one day and discovers Mary struggling to escape the clutches of a swinger’s party guest who has mistakenly strayed into the Bland’s apartment. Paul beans him with a frying pan, inadvertently killing Mary’s overeager groper. When the couple discovers a sizable wad of money on the body, a light bulb goes off-and the Blands come up with a unique plan for financing the restaurant that they have always dreamed of opening (and helping rid the world of those icky swingers!). Things get complicated, however when a burglar (Robert Beltran) ingratiates himself into their scheme. Yes, it’s sick…but in a good way. Wait ‘til you meet Doris the Dominatrix!

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Eraserhead-If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my fifty-odd years on the planet, it’s that when it comes to the films of David Lynch, there is no middle ground. You either love ‘em, or you hate ‘em. You buy a ticket to a Lynch film, my friend, you’d best be willing to take the ride-and he will take you for a ride. And do you want to know the really weird thing about his films? They get funnier with each viewing. Yes, “funny”, as in “ha-ha” . I think the secret to his enigmatic approach to telling a story is that Lynch is in reality having the time of his life being impenetrably enigmatic-he’s sitting back and chuckling at all the futile attempts to dissect and make “sense” of his narratives. For example, have you noticed how I’ve managed to dodge and weave and avoid giving you any kind of plot summary? I suspect that David Lynch would find that fucking hysterical.

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Forbidden Zone- Picture if you will: an artistic marriage between John Waters, Guy Maddin, Busby Berkeley and the Quay Brothers. Now, imagine the wedding night (I’ll give you a sec). As for the “plot”, well, it’s about this indescribably twisted family who discovers a portal to a sort of pan-dimensional…aw, fuck it. Suffice it to say, any film with Herve Villchaize as the King of the Sixth Dimension, Susan Tyrell as his Queen and a scene featuring Danny Elfman channeling Cab Calloway in a devil costume is a dream for film geeks; and a nightmare for others. Directed by Danny’s brother, Richard.

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Harold and Maude-Harold loves Maude. And Maude loves Harold. It’s a match made in heaven-if only “society” would agree. Because, you see, Harold (Bud Cort) is a teenager, and Maude (Ruth Gordon) is about to blow out 80 candles. Falling in love with a woman old enough to be his great-grandmother is the least of Harold’s quirks. He’s a chronically depressed trustafarian slacker who amuses himself by staging fake “suicides” for the express purpose of freaking out his snobbish patrician mother (the wonderful Vivian Pickles).

He also “enjoys” attending funerals-which is where he and Maude “meet cute”. The effervescent Maude is Harold’s diametric opposite; while he wallows in morbid speculation that any given day could be his last, she purposefully embraces each day to the fullest as if it actually were her last. Obviously, she has something to teach Harold. Despite dark undertones, this is one “midnight movie” that  manages to be life-affirming. The late great Hal Ashby directed, and Colin Higgins wrote the screenplay. The memorable score (one of the best movie soundtracks of all time) is by Cat Stevens.

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Liquid SkyDowntown 81 meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this one-of-a-kind sci fi offering. A diminutive, parasitic alien (who seems to have a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists) lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, erm, you know, reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (which I suppose makes the alien a dopamine junkie?).

At any rate, don’t think about the science too hard. The main attraction here is the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or you could say, non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who plays two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a gay male model. Director Slava Zsukerman also helped compose the oddly compelling electronic music score.

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The Loved One-When it was originally released back in 1965, this film had a pretty unusual tag line for the era: “The motion picture with something to offend everyone.” Even by today’s standards, this one is pretty unusual. The perennially gap-toothed Robert Morse (who can be currently seen on AMC’s hit series Mad Men, playing senior partner Bertram Cooper) plays a befuddled Englishman, making a valiant effort to fully process the cultural madness of southern California, where he has come for an extended visit at the invitation of his uncle (Sir John Gielgud) who works for a Hollywood movie studio. Along the way, he falls in love with a beautiful but mentally unstable cosmetician (Anjanette Comer) who prepares “loved ones” for open casket funerals, gets a job at a pet cemetery, and basically just reacts to the bevy of wack-jobs he encounters. In fact, he is the only character in the film that doesn’t seem completely out of his goddamn mind.

The unbelievable cast includes Jonathan Winters (playing several roles with his usual aplomb), Robert Morley, Roddy McDowell, Milton Berle, James Coburn, Paul Williams, Liberace…and nothing, I mean nothing could ever prepare the uninitiated for Rod Steiger as Mr. Joyboy, an embalmer who has a very interesting relationship with his mother (who may have been the model for Edith Massey’s baby crib-bound grotesquerie in Pink Flamingos). Tony Richardson directed, and the screenplay was adapted by Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove) and Christopher Isherwood from Evelyn Waugh’s novel.

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Meet the Feebles-Long before he was concerning himself with bringing CGI-enhanced orcs and hobbits to life, director Peter Jackson was working with considerably lower production budgets (as in: next to nothing), and letting has overactive imagination make up the difference in off-beat indie projects like this one from 1990. It’s a sordid backstage tale about a neurotic diva who heads the cast of a popular TV variety show. So what makes it a midnight movie? Well, there’s lots of graphic sex, gory violence, and drug use. OK (you may rebut) but that’s the kind of thing one can see on premium cable any day of the week. Yes-but how often do you see puppets engaging in those activities? Adorable, fuzzy-wuzzy anthropomorphic animal puppets, committing all 7 deadly sins (and a few extra ones you may have never thought of before). You really have to see it, to believe it.

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Pink Flamingos-“Oh Babs! I’m starving to death. Hasn’t that egg man come yet?” If Baltimore filmmaker/true crime buff/self-styled czar of bad taste John Waters had completely ceased making films after this jaw-dropping 1972 entry, his place in the cult movie pantheon would still be assured. Waters’ favorite leading lady (and sometimes leading man), Divine, was born to play Babs Johnson, who fights to retain her title of The Filthiest Person Alive against arch-nemesis Connie Marble (Mink Stole) and her scuzzy hubby.

It’s a white trash smack down of the lowest order; shocking, sleazy, utterly depraved-and funny as hell. Animal lovers be warned-a chicken was definitely harmed during the making of the film (Waters insists that it was completely unintended, if that’s any consolation). If you are only familiar with Waters’ more recent work, and want to explore his “roots” I’d recommend watching this one first. If you can make it all the way through without losing your lunch, consider yourself prepped for the rest of the oeuvre.

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Repo Man-As off-the-wall as it is, this punk-rock/sci-fi black comedy version of Rebel without a Cause is actually one of the more coherent efforts from mercurial U.K. filmmaker Alex Cox. Emilio Estevez is suitably sullen as disenfranchised L.A. punk Otto, who stumbles into a gig as a “repo man” after losing his job, getting dumped by his girlfriend and deciding to disown his parents. As he is indoctrinated into the samurai-like “code” of the repo man by a sage veteran named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton, in another masterful deadpan performance) Otto feels he may have found his true calling.

A subplot involving a mentally fried government scientist driving around with a mysterious, glowing “whatsit” in the trunk is an obvious homage to Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir, Kiss Me Deadly. Cox also tosses a UFO conspiracy into the mix. Great use of L.A. locations. The fabulous punk rock soundtrack includes Iggy Pop, Black Flag, and The Circle Jerks.

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show-Arguably the ultimate midnight movie. 35 years have not diminished the cult status of Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s original stage musical about a hapless young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who have the misfortune of stumbling into the lair of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) one dark and stormy night. O’Brien co-stars as the mad doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Riff-Raff.

Much singing, dancing, cross-dressing, axe-murdering, cannibalism and hot sex ensues-with broad theatrical nods to everything from Metropolis, King Kong and Frankenstein to cheesy 1950s sci-fi, Bob Fosse musicals, 70s glam-rock and everything in between. Runs out of steam a bit in the third act, but a killer lineup of knockout musical numbers in the first hour or so makes it worth repeated viewings. And at the risk of losing my “street cred” with some readers, I will now publicly admit that I have never attended one of the “audience participation” midnight showings. I now fully anticipate being zapped with squirt guns and pelted with handfuls of uncooked rice…

Pre-Oscar marathon: Top 10 best picture winners…evah

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 6, 2010)

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I’m sure you are aware that the Academy Awards are coming up this Sunday (can’t avoid the hype). As an alleged “movie critic”, I’m ashamed to admit that I have only seen 5 out of the 10 nominees for 2009’s Best Picture. Then again, it’s been a number of years since Academy voters and I have seen eye to eye as to what constitutes a “best picture”. Either my sense of film aesthetic has changed, or the Academy has lowered its standards over the years. And I don’t think my personal sense of film aesthetic has changed, if you catch my drift.

At any rate, this is my way of explaining in advance as to why you may notice that no “Best Picture” winners from the last two decades made my list, which I have culled from the previous 81 Academy Awards. Perhaps it is just my long-winded way of saying “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” And you kids stay off my lawn.

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You Can’t Take it With You (Best Picture of 1938) Capitalism: a love story. 72 years on, Frank Capra’s screen adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s stage play resonates anew in the light of our current woes. A Wall Street fat cat (Edward Arnold) comes up with various nefarious machinations to force a stubborn but happy-go-lucky homeowner (Lionel Barrymore) and his eccentric and free-spirited family to sell him his property, in order to make way for a new factory he wants to build in a prime metropolitan location.

Complications ensue when Barrymore’s granddaughter (Jean Arthur) falls in love with Arnold’s son (James Stewart). Hilarity  abounds, fueled by the contrasting worldviews of Arnold’s uptight, greedy capitalist and Barrymore’s fun-loving non conformist. There’s lots of great slapstick bits, and like every screwball comedy worth its salt, there’s a scene where the entire cast ends up in a holding cell and has to explain themselves before a hapless judge.

Although this is one of Capra’s more lightweight films, he still works in social commentary about the haves vs. the have-nots; in some respects it feels like a warm-up for some of the pervading themes in It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra also received the Best Director Oscar.

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Casablanca (Best Picture of 1943)-Romance, exotic intrigue, Bogie, Ingrid Bergman, evil Nazis, selfless acts of quiet heroism, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Rick’s Café, Claude Rains rounding up the usual suspects, Dooley singing “As Time Goes By”, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the most rousing rendition of “La Marseille” you’ve ever heard, that goodbye scene at the airfield, and a timeless message (if you love someone, set them free). What’s not to love about this movie-lover’s movie?

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From Here to Eternity (Best Picture of 1953)-Even though James Jones’ coarse and steamy source novel about restless GIs stationed at Pearl Harbor, fucking and fighting with wild abandon in the days leading up to the surprise attack was heavily sanitized for the screen adaptation, Fred Zinnemann’s film was still pretty risqué and heady adult fare for its time. Monty Clift was born to play the complex, angst-ridden company bugler (and sometime pugilist) Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a classic “hard case” at constant loggerheads with his superiors (and his personal demons). And what a cast-outstanding performances abound from the likes of Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra (in his legendary “comeback” role), Jack Warden, Ernest Borgnine, and Donna Reed (who quite literally put her wholesome image to bed by playing a prostitute). A true classic.

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West Side Story (Best Picture of 1961)-You know, there are so many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned as a result of my many, many viewings of this fine film over the years; and since I am holding the Talking Stick, I wish to share a few of them with you now:

  1. When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet.
  2. Something’s coming; don’t know when…but it’s soon.
  3. I like the island Manhattan.
  4. Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it.
  5. It’s alarming, how charming I feel.
  6. Deep down inside us, there is good.

You’re welcome.

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Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture of 1962)-Until you have viewed David Lean’s masterpiece on a theater screen, you can’t really comprehend how big the desert is. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. Or how commanding 29 year-old Peter O’Toole was in his first starring role. O’Toole gives an appropriately larger-than-life performance as T.E. Lawrence, a flamboyant and outspoken British army officer who reinvented himself as a charismatic guerilla leader, gathering up warring Arab tribes and uniting them in a common cause to oust the Turks during WW I.

Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson based their intelligent screenplay on Lawrence’s memoirs, sustaining a surprising sense of intimacy throughout. This was no small feat, considering the film’s epic sweep and visual splendor (DP Freddie Young and editor Anne V. Coates more than earned their Oscars). Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer round off a fine cast, and you can’t discuss this film without giving praise to Maurice Jarre’s magnificent “Best Score”.

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In the Heat of the Night (Best Picture of 1967)-“They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic social commentary, Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his role; you feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn (I would imagine President Obama knows that feeling as of late).

While Steiger is outstanding here as well, I find it ironic that he was the one who picked up “Best Actor in a leading role”, when in reality, Poitier was the star (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a quintessential “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated, but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the appropriately bluesy soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the theme song.

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Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture of 1969)-One of the very few times the Academy has given a nod to the dark side (add Hamlet, Silence of the Lambs, American Beauty, and No Country for Old Men to that list, and you can literally count it on one hand). John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking character study also helped usher in a new era of mature, gritty neo-realism in American film that would reach its apex in 1976 with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (one year before Star Wars).

Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as the Fagin-esque Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. There is a memorable party scene featuring cameos from a number of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” alumnus. The location filming serves as an historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square. Schlesinger picked up a statuette for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

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The Godfather (Best Picture of 1972) and The Godfather, Part II (Best Picture of 1974)-Yes, I’m counting them as one; because in a narrative and artistic sense, they are. Got a problem with that? Tell it to Luca Brasi. And, taken as a whole, Francis Ford Coppola’s two-part masterpiece is best summed up thusly: Brando, Pacino, and De Niro.

Annie Hall (Best Picture of 1977)-As far as his “earlier, funny films” go, this semi-autobiographical entry ranks as one of Woody Allen’s finest, and represents the moment he “found his voice” as a filmmaker. The Academy concurred, awarding three additional Oscars as well-for Best Actress (leading lady Diane Keaton, in her career-defining role), for Director (Allen) and for Best Original Screenplay (Allen again, along with co-writer Marshall Brickman).

Part 1 of a triptych (or so the theory goes) that continued with Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, it is also the film that neatly divides the history of the cinematic romantic comedy in half. So many of the narrative framing techniques and comic inventions that Allen utilized have become so de rigueur for the genre (a recent example would be The 500 Days of Summer) that it’s easy to forget how wonderfully innovative and fresh this film felt back in 1977. A funny, bittersweet, and perceptive look at modern romance.

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Gandhi (Best Picture of 1982)-I can still remember the first time I saw this film. It was at the single-screen Northpoint Theater in San Francisco, which at the time was the only venue in the city equipped to showcase 70mm prints in their full glory. In its original theatrical presentation, the film had an intermission, which occurred following the scene that reenacts the unthinkably horrible Jallianwala Bagh massacre. When the lights came up in the packed house, you could hear a pin drop-but for the sound of a woman quietly sobbing in the seat right in back of me. That’s all it took for me-I began to lose it, and it quickly spread around the auditorium. I had never before (or since) experienced anything like that at a screening. And therein, dear reader lays the power of truly great film making.

RIP David Carradine: All life is precious…

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2009)

…nor can any be replaced.

I was sad to hear about David Carradine’s passing . He may not have always been discriminating in his choice of roles (like Michael Caine, it seemed that he never met a script that he didn’t like) but he had a unique screen presence, and with well over 100 films to his credit over a 46-year career, was obviously dedicated to his craft.

According to the Internet Movie Database, there were six films in post-production and one in pre-production at the time of his death. He’s even in a SIFF film (screening next week) called My Suicide (I know what you’re thinking…but we still don’t know for sure at the time of this writing, so let’s not go there).

I don’t think I’ve met anyone in my age group who doesn’t have a certain nostalgic affection for Carradine via the character he created in the TV series Kung Fu (which I’m pretty sure was your average ‘murcan teevee watcher’s first exposure to Zen philosophy). Here’s a few film recommendations:

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Box Car Bertha-This 1972 Bonnie and Clyde knockoff (produced on the cheap for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures) was the launching pad for a  fledgling director named Martin Scorsese. It is also one of the 4 films in which Carradine co-starred with Barbara Hershey (the two had a longtime off-screen romantic partnership as well). Carradine also landed a small part in Scorsese’s breakout film, Mean Streets.

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Americana-Carradine and Hershey teamed up again in this odd, no-budget 1973 character study (released in 1981) that Carradine directed and co-produced himself. He plays a Vietnam vet who drifts into a small Kansas town, and for his own enigmatic reasons, decides to restore an abandoned merry-go-round. The reaction from the clannish townsfolk ranges from bemused to spiteful. It’s part Rambo, part Billy Jack (although nowhere near as violent) and a whole lot of weird. What really makes this film a curio in the genre is that none of the violence is perpetrated by its protagonist. Carradine also composed and performed the song in the closing credits. It’s worth noting this film predates Deer Hunter and Coming Home, which are usually touted as the “first” films to deal with troubled Vietnam vets.

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Death Race 2000 At first glance, Paul Bartel’s film about a futuristic gladiatorial cross-country auto race in which drivers score extra points for running down pedestrians is an outrageous, gross-out cult comedy. It could also be viewed as a takeoff on Rollerball, as a broad political satire, or perhaps a wry comment on that great, timeless American tradition of watching televised blood sport for entertainment. One thing I’ll say about this movie-it’s never boring! Carradine is a riot as the defending race champ, “Frankenstein”.

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Bound For Glory-You can almost taste the dust in director Hal Ashby’s leisurely, episodic 1976 biopic about the life of Depression era songwriter/social activist Woody Guthrie. Carradine (as Guthrie) gives his finest performance, and does a very credible job with his own singing and playing (music was his first love).

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The Long Riders-An underappreciated western from  action film maestro Walter Hill. One of the more entertaining renditions of the oft-filmed tale of Jesse James and his gang, largely due to the stunt casting. Three sets of well-known acting siblings (the brothers Keach, Quaid and Carradine) portray three sets of legendary outlaw siblings (the brothers James, Miller and Younger, respectively).

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Q, The Winged SerpentI know this darkly comic horror flick from psychotronic writer-director Larry Cohen isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it actually contains one of my favorite Carradine performances. He plays a New York police investigator looking for the nest of a flying lizard randomly terrorizing the city. Michael Moriarty (a demented performance) is the star, but Carradine’s straight-faced character gets to deliver some wry lines; in fact I think he displays his knack for  subtle comedy throughout the whole film. Also look for Richard Roundtree and Candy Clark.

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Kill Bill, Vol 1 / Kill Bill Vol 2-Ever since Jules told Vincent (in Pulp Fiction) that his “retirement” plans were to “…just walk the Earth. You know, like Caine in Kung Fu…” you knew at some point, Quentin Tarantino and David Carradine were going to work together. It took 10 years, but it landed Carradine one of his most plum late-career roles, as the bad, bad, man at the top of Uma Thurman’s hit list.