DELIVERANCE (1972) revisited

August 22, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the next entry in my “Revisited” series, where I re-watch and then write about (not a traditional review) a classic movie. “City Slickers” could have been an apt name for this 1972 film, though it would have forced a new title for Billy Crystal’s 1991 comedy. DELIVERANCE was directed by John Boorman, and the script was adapted from James Dickey’s 1970 novel by the writer himself. Many have referred to this as a man-against-nature film, and it certainly works as an adventure tale; however, I find the psychological elements just as fascinating – the primal instincts and the personal transformations.

Those nine notes are every bit as iconic as the JAWS theme. “Dueling Banjos” always sends a chill up my spine, as I recall certain scenes from the film that are forever etched into my memory. We don’t even have to wait long to hear the song. It’s the first real sequence after the opening credits which feature only the banter of four buddies animatedly discussing their weekend canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River before a dam is built and the area flooded for a hydro-electric plant. During the banter, in a bit of foreshadowing, we hear Ned Beatty’s character ask, “Are there any hillbillies” where they are headed. The first glimpse of the four men occurs as they stop for gas and interact with the locals.

The personalities of each are quickly established. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is the alpha male, and the one pushing the group to take the trip. Ed (Jon Voight) is Lewis’ friend who wants to be like him, though he lacks the confidence. Bobby (Ned Beatty) is an insurance salesman, who looks down on the locals and would rather be playing golf. Drew (Ronny Cox) is a nice guy, and the one who connects musically for the guitar and banjo picking with the local boy (Billy Redden) perched on the porch. It’s a fun, yet unsettling, scene to watch as the two pick away on their instruments. Their smiles end abruptly when the boy turns away in disgust as Drew tries to shake his hand. It’s not the last time the outsiders will be rebuffed.

 These are suburban men, settled in life, being pushed outside their comfort zone by wannbe-adventurer Lewis, who is the epitome of 1970’s machismo. His angry proclamation that “they’re drowning a river” is followed up with “because it’s there”, as an answer to why they are taking the trip. Lewis’ life vest flaunting his arms and chest, and his aggressive oratory (including the ironic, “You can’t judge people by the way they look, Chubby”) contrast with the conservative dress and mannerisms of the other men: Ed smoking a pipe, Drew strumming a guitar, and Bobby’s squishy body. For the first half of the film, Reynolds mesmerizes as the cocky Lewis.

As the men make their way down the river, they experience the sudden adrenaline rush that Lewis promised. Shooting the rapids on the river is truly man-against-nature, and the adventure that director Boorman and writer Dickey want us to initially believe is at the heart of the story. One of the key exchanges occurs at the campsight that night as Lewis acknowledges Ed’s “nice life, nice job, nice wife, nice kids”, and then asks him directly, “Why do you come on these trips with me, Ed?” It’s clear Ed is happy with his life, but he desperately wants to feel the power of being a survivalist and “real man”. It’s because of this exchange, that we find Ed’s hunting trip and face-to-face with a deer the next morning so gut-wrenching.

The second day finds some truly peaceful times with nature, and some stunning camera work and shots of nature courtesy of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmund. It’s in these shots where we “get it” – the appeal of becoming one with nature. Of course, it’s once things seem so right, that things go so wrong. A drastic shift occurs. Ed and Bobby are confronted by local hillbillies in the most despicable way. Fear fills the screen and our minds. The menacing mountain men are played by Herbert “Cowboy” Coward (not really an actor) and Billy McKinney (whom you’ll recognize from FIRST BLOOD, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, and many other roles). Still today, the sequence is terrifying and difficult to watch, and it’s when “squeal like a pig” entered our lexicon, while “He got a real purdy mouth” became seared into our brain.

Immediately following the nightmare sequence with the hillbillies, comes one of those psychological exchanges that elevate the film to greatness. Four frantic and desperate men debating “the law”, when in actuality, they are debating self-preservation. The close-up of Ned Beatty’s face says as much as any line of dialogue, and, as is often the case, a moral dilemma is resolved by choosing the path of least resistance. The day presents more horror, as Lewis and Drew meet with disaster, while Ed’s transformation takes place. It should be noted that the film’s budget was so tight, the actors performed their own stunts – including Jon Voight’s tense (and impressive) climb up the face of the rock cliff.

Director John Boorman was a 5-time Oscar nominee, including HOPE AND GLORY (1987). He also helmed one of my sleeper favorites, THE EMERALD FOREST (1985), as well as coming right out of the gate with his first feature (and cult favorite) POINT BLANK (1967), starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. Writer James Dickey wrote the 1970 novel and adapted his own novel for the screen. He was a novelist, poet, and college professor, as well as being named U.S. Poet Laureate. My favorite Dickey quote is, “The poet is one who, because he cannot love, imagines what it would be like if he could.”

For Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, it was their feature film debut. Mr. Beatty had a 40 year acting career (he retired in 2013), and notched an Oscar nomination for NETWORK (1976), while seemingly appearing in most every movie in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He may be best remembered as Lex Luthor’s bumbling henchman in SUPERMAN (1978) and SUPERMAN II (1978), and kids today would recognize his voice as Lotso in TOY STORY 3 (2010). He also became good friends with Burt Reynolds, and was cast in many of Reynolds’ later films. His career allowed him to play a widely diverse roster of characters, and one of his often-forgotten best was in THE BIG EASY (1986). Mr. Cox is approaching a 50 year acting career, and he is also a talented singer-songwriter. His best known roles are as the Police Lieutenant in BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984) and BEVERLY HILLS COP II (1987), and as a corporate executive in both ROBOCOP (1987) and TOTAL RECALL (1990). In addition to his many movie roles, Cox appeared in numerous TV series throughout the years, and one of my favorites was a small town family drama entitled “Apple’s Way”, which ran for two seasons, 1974-75.

Jon Voight is an actor every movie lover is familiar with. As he approaches his 60th year in the business, the highly decorated actor has been nominated for four Oscars, winning for COMING HOME (1978), starring opposite Jane Fonda. His other nominations were for playing a gigolo in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969), a bad guy in the thriller RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985), and as Howard Cosell in ALI (2001). More recently he has been recognized for his stellar work in the superb cable TV series “Ray Donovan”. His daughter is Oscar winner Angelina Jolie, and Mr. Voight has had such memorable roles as boxer Billy Flynn in THE CHAMP (1979), Jim Phelps in MISSON: IMPOSSIBLE (1996), a sleazy hunter in ANACONDA (1997), and President Franklin Roosevelt in PEARL HARBOR (2001). And of course, we must mention the classic Jon (“John”) Voight episode of “Seinfeld.” JAWS fans might be surprised to know that he turned down the Hooper role that ultimately went to Richard Dreyfuss.

A remarkable 60 year career ended when Burt Reynolds passed away in 2018. Reynolds was a star running back for Florida State University before an injury ended his pro aspirations and caused him to pursue acting. For an extended period of time in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Reynolds was the biggest box office draw among actors. Some of his most popular films during the streak included: THE LONGEST YARD (1974), the SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT franchise (1977, 1980, 1983), SEMI-TOUGH (1977), SHARKY’S MACHINE (1981), THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981) and II (1984), and THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS (1982). Most of these films played off of Reynolds’ extraordinary charm and good looks (and iconic cackle), while he often strutted tongue-in-cheek as he worked extensively with a close group of friends. He later experienced some personal relationship issues, financial difficulties, and extreme health scares. Although he continued to work during the late 80s and early 90s, it was his excellent supporting work in STRIPTEASE (1996) and BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) that really vaulted him back into the Hollywood scene. The latter of those two movies nabbed him the only Oscar nomination of his career. Reynolds continued to work right up until the end of his life, spanning a career of almost 200 credits (TV and movies). Some of you fellow old-timers out there might recall Reynolds’ first recurring role was as Quint in “Gunsmoke”, the longest running TV series until eclipsed by “The Simpsons” (and by “Law and Order” in seasons, though it has about 150 fewer episodes). In DELIVERANCE, Reynolds’ Lewis is “a man’s man” – the kind of guy the other suburban dads aspired to. His on screen magnetism is obvious, and stardom followed. Reynolds spent most of his adult life in front of a camera – either movies, TV, paparazzi, or talk shows. And lest we forget, though he claimed to have tried, Reynolds became the first male centerfold for “Cosmopolitan” magazine in 1972, the same year this movie hit. That smirk, cigar and bear rug created quite a sensation at the time – brilliant marketing from editor Helen Gurley Brown.

While the Cahulawassee River is fictional, the filming location was most decidedly real. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmund captured the stunning beauty of Tallulah Gorge and the Chatooga River in northeastern Georgia. His camera work leaves no doubt as to nature’s double edge sword of beauty and danger. Mr. Zsigmund was a 4 time Oscar nominee, winning the award for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977). He was also responsible for THE DEER HUNTER (1978), HEAVEN’S GATE (1980), THE TWO JAKES (1990), and THE BLACK DAHLIA (2006). Editor Tom Priestley received his only Oscar nomination for his work on this film. Mr. Priestley also served as Editor on THE GREAT GATSBY (1974), TESS (1979), and 1984 (1984), and is the son of English writer John Boynton Priestley.

 Ned Beatty’s wife and John Boorman’s son have brief appearances as Ed’s family, and writer James Dickey has a small but key role as the hulking Sheriff of Aintry, who doesn’t buy the men’s recap of events. Reynolds dominates the screen for the first half of the movie, and Mr. Beatty shines in his degradation, but it’s Voight’s transformation into a semblance of Lewis that proves most remarkable. Rarely have primal instincts and survival mode been more effectively presented on the silver screen than in this film. This “guys’ weekend” turned nightmare received 3 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editor), but this was the same year that CABARET beat out THE GODFATHER in a couple of categories, so DELIVERANCE took home no awards … although we will always have those 9 notes.

*Note: “Dueling Banjos” was credited to Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandel, but there was a lawsuit filed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, who wrote “Feudin’ Banjos” in 1955.

As a bonus for reading this far, here is a short video of Steve Martin and Kermit the Frog performing “Dueling Banjos”:

 

And here is the original 1972 trailer:


CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) revisited

July 26, 2020

Greetings again from the darkness. This is another addition to my “revisited” series where I re-watch and then write about a classic movie. Why are “creature features” so appealing, and why was Universal so good at producing these movies that mesmerized me during childhood (and yes, still to this day)? The Universal Monsters of the 1930’s and 1940’s included such classics as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and The Phantom of the Opera. Many cinematic iterations of these characters/creatures exist including sequels, remakes and contemporary re-boots, and there is something magical about the mystique and legend and lore behind each of the monsters. By the 1950’s, Universal was looking to revive the genre.

William Alland is credited with the idea for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. It’s a twist on the 1740 fantasy classic “Beauty and the Beast” from French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Mr. Alland is the film’s Producer, and years earlier he played reporter Jerry Thompson in Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941). Maurice Zimm is credited with the story, and the screenplay was co-written by Harry Essex (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, a Ray Bradbury story) and Arthur A Ross (an Oscar winner for BRUBAKER, 1980).

Quite similar to KING KONG, the story from Edgar Wallace and Merian Cooper, this movie follows a scientific expedition down the Amazon River where a prehistoric “Gill-man” (half man, half amphibian) is discovered and captured. The creature seems enraptured by Kay, the fiancé of one of the scientists – much like Kong was drawn to Ann Darrow. There is the expected battle between science and commerce: the value of marine life research vs the chance to make a pot of money. The feuding scientists also have to remain focused on the ongoing concern for the safety of those on the expedition … especially Kay.

Jack Arnold is remembered today as one of the great sci-fi movie directors of the 50’s. His work included THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) TARANTULA (1955), and the excellent Audie Murphy western NO NAME ON THE BULLET (1959). He also directed many episodes of some of the top TV shows of the1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. For this one, he deserves a great deal of credit for generating sympathy for the creature, by positioning him, not as the villain, but rather as the victim of a home invasion by the humans. Director Arnold also does a nice job early on of teasing us with footprints and fossils, and letting us hear about the legend, prior to actually seeing the creature.

 For a movie that spends most of its time on a small boat named Rita, the cast is deep and talented. Richard Carlson (LITTLE FOXES, 1941) plays David Reed, the scientist engaged to Kay. Mr. Carlson dreamed of being a playwright, and had many guest starring roles on TV; however, “I Led 3 Lives” was his only starring role in a successful series. It was reportedly Lee Harvey Oswald’s favorite show. Co-starring here was Julie Adams (billed as Julia at the time) as Kay Lawrence, personal favorite of both David and creature. In the film she is stalked by the creature, even while she’s out for a leisurely swim in the Amazon (not recommended). Ms. Adams was a favorite on the cult movie circuit, and she died in 2019 at age 92. Having been crowned Miss Little Rock at age 19, she acted regularly into her 80’s, and even had a role at age 91, the year before she passed.

Richard Denning plays Mark Williams, the money man behind the expedition, and David’s boss and nemesis. He’s the one who sees dollar signs while capturing the creature. Mr. Denning served on a submarine in the US Navy during WWII. He starred with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957), and then in the late 1960’s took an acting job as Governor on the original “Hawaii Five-0”, since he already lived in Hawaii. Mr. Denning’s wife, actress Evelyn Ankers, was known as “Queen of the Screamers” for her work as damsel in distress in many thrillers in the 1940’s (Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dracula movies).

Other cast members include familiar face Whit Bissell as Dr. Thompson. Mr. Bissell was a frequently working character actor from 1940 -1984 in TV and movies. He had over 300 credits, including I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1958) with Michael Landon. Nestor Paiva plays Lucas, the Captain of the Rita, as a kind of Walter Brennan type. Mr. Paiva also appeared in more than 300 projects, and his wife was once employed as personal secretary to Howard Hughes. Antonio Moreno plays Carl Maia. Mr. Moreno had a huge career from 1912 to 1959, and was a rival of Rudolph Valentino for many “Latin lover” roles. The film’s narrator, Art Gilmore, became known for his narration and voice acting in shows such as “Dragnet”, “The Waltons”, “Adam-12”, “The Red Skelton Hour”, “The Roy Rogers Show”, and many more.

Of course everyone who watches the movie wants to know more about the creature. Well, two actors were involved. Ben Chapman, who was a Marine during the Korean War, played the creature on land, while Ricou Browning played the Gill-man we see in the water. Mr. Browning was also the co-creator of the popular TV series “Flipper” (1964-67), and directed the iconic underwater scenes in the James Bond classic THUNDERBALL (1965). Also involved here were a young Henry Mancini as uncredited composer and cinematographer William E Snyder. Mr. Mancini was a 4 time Oscar winner best known for his iconic “Pink Panther” theme, and Mr. Snyder achieved 3 Oscar nominations

 Director Arnold insisted on shooting the film in 3-D, despite its low budget, and over the years, it became quite a cult classic (with its’ own festivals). There is even a scandal associated with the film. For many years, Hollywood make-up legend Bud Westmore took credit for the design of the creature. It took more than 50 years, but Mallory O’Meara’s book, “The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Millicent Patrick”, finally allowed Ms. Patrick (pictured, left) to receive due credit for her design work. Sequels to the film included: REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955), and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956), but it was perhaps director Guillermo del Toro’s stunning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) winning the Oscar for Best Picture, that brought CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON back into prominence. This allowed a new generation of movie lovers to behold the classic sequence of the creature’s synchronized swimming just below Kay in the murky Amazon water. What a sight!

watch the original trailer:


THE APARTMENT (1960) revisited

June 20, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the latest addition to my “revisited” series where I re-watch and then write about (not a review) a genuine classic movie. It’s been 60 years on this one, so please expect spoilers with no spoiler alerts. Appearing on most every legitimate list of greatest cinematic comedies, director Billy Wilder’s film actually defies categorization and is a terrific blend of comedy-romance-drama and commentary on societal gender roles of that era. Mr. Wilder co-wrote the razor-sharp script with I.A.L. “Iz” Diamond. The two were collaborators off and on for 15 years, including what many consider to be the best comedy of all-time, as well as one of Marilyn Monroe’s finest films, SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959).

Jack Lemmon stars as CC “Bud” Baxter, a clerk at Consolidated Life, a New York insurance company with 31,259 employees. Baxter is but a minor cog in the conglomerate wheel, save for one thing: he allows upper management to use his apartment for their extramarital affairs. He doesn’t much like the arrangement, but lacks the backbone to stand up to them – especially since they dangle the carrot of promotion. Although the neighbors think he is a womanizing Lothario, Baxter’s life is void of companionship. He’s on the outside (of his own apartment) while others are living it up. Elevator Operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) has caught Baxter’s eye, yet while she is courteous and friendly, she politely deflects his flirtations.

When that promotion finally comes through, Baxter finds himself with yet another executive requiring use of the apartment. Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) is the Human Resources Manager, and his demands lead to a most disheartening discovery. Baxter is crushed when a broken compact mirror and the office Christmas party allow him to figure out that Mr. Sheldrake is having an affair with Ms. Kubelik, and he himself has been providing the place.

 There are so many terrific scenes and performances, it’s not practical to go through each and every one. The early interactions between Baxter and Kubelik are quite fun – he’s so eager, and she’s so careful not to wound his pride. Kubelik and Sheldrake in the booth at the Chinese Restaurant is quite remarkable, and Baxter’s neighbors (Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens) are especially effective as the doctor and his quick-to-judge wife. Sheldrake’s secretary, Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), is a standout in her Christmas Party scene with Ms. Kubelik, and watching Baxter and Mrs. MacDougall (Hope Holiday) drunkenly dance the holiday hours away is comedic genius, although nothing can top Baxter deftly wielding a tennis racquet (wooden frame, of course) to strain pasta.

The film earned 10 Oscar nominations, and won in 5 categories: Best Picture, Best Director (Wilder), Best Screenplay (Wilder and Diamond), Best Art/Set Direction (Alexandre Trauner, Edward G Boyle), and Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell, who also won Oscars for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, 1946, and THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, 1942, and who also started in showbiz as an acrobat for The Flying Mandells in Ringling Brothers Circus). The film’s other nominees were Best Actor (Lemmon, a 2-time Oscar winner for MISTER ROBERTS, 1955, and SAVE THE TIGER, 1973), Best Actress (MacLaine, Oscar winner for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, 1983), Best Supporting Actor (Kruschen), Best Cinematographer (Joseph LaShelle, and Oscar winner for LAURA, 1944), and Best Sound (Gordon Sawyer). Somehow Adolph Deutsch’s film score got nominated for a Grammy, but not for an Oscar. He did win 3 other Oscars for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1950), SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954), and OKLAHOMA! (1955).

Writer-director Billy Wilder is truly one of cinema’s giants. In his career, he was nominated for 21 Oscars, winning 6 (THE LOST WEEKEND 1945, SUNSET BLVD 1951). This film was released one year after SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), a film that often tops the list of best all-time comedies. That film and this one, are also in the battle for best final line: “Nobody’s perfect” vs “Shut up and deal”. Wilder admitted that his idea for THE APARTMENT came from one scene in BRIEF ENCOUNTER, the excellent 1945 film from director David Lean, adapted from Noel Coward’s play.

Jack Lemmon’s “Bud” Baxter is just one of many memorable characters throughout his stellar career that featured 8 Oscar nominations, 2 Oscars, and roles in comedy and drama. He was a close friend of comedian Ernie Kovacs who was married to Edie Adams (Miss Olsen in this movie), and had a remarkable comedy partnership (10 movies) with Walter Matthau, the best known of which is THE ODD COUPLE (1968).  Lemmon appeared in 7 Billy Wilder movies, and was the first actor to win Oscars for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

Shirley MacLaine was only 25 years old when she starred as Fran Kubelik. Like Mr. Lemmon, her (6) Oscar nominations were spread across four decades (50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s), finally winning for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983). In real life she is Warren Beatty’s big sister, although they’ve never appeared in the same film. Ms. MacLaine is renowned as a film actress, stage performer, dancer, author (multiple books), and of course, New Age guru. She’s now 86 years old and still working.

Fred MacMurray plays the scoundrel Jeff Sheldrake. Mr. MacMurray is best known for his 12 seasons and 380 episodes as the most patient father on “My Three Sons”. His career spanned fifty years (1929-1978), and he made his mark as a serious actor in such films as the ultimate film noir classic DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and THE CAINE MUTINY (1954). He sprinkled in some westerns, before shifting to comedy in the first Disney live action film THE SHAGGY DOG (1959), and then family fare like THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR (1961) and SON OF FLUBBER (1963). He was certainly an underrated, though never out-of-work actor. On an interesting side note, when he was age 22, he played saxophone in a band that featured Bing Crosby as the lead singer.

 Edie Adams plays Miss Olsen, secretary to MacMurray’s Sheldrake. Her screen time here is limited, but her role is crucial to the story and well-crafted by Ms. Adams. She was the wife of early TV comedy legend Ernie Kovacs, who died in a car accident in 1962 at age 42. Ms. Adams put together a multi-faceted career including time as a nightclub singer, and actress on TV, stage, and film. She is still remembered for her iconic cigar commercials:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7EbLIdE88Q

Baxter’s neighbors are played by Jack Kruschen as the understanding Dr. Dreyfuss and Naomi Stevens as the more direct Mrs. Dreyfuss. Mr. Kruschen’s 48 year career covered more than 220 credits in TV and film. Ms. Stevens is remembered for her role in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) and a recurring role on “The Doris Day Show”. She passed away (age 92) just a couple of months before her 70th wedding anniversary.

Joyce Jameson plays “the blond” Marilyn Monroe lookalike. She is best known for her roles in Roger Corman horror films, and for a recurring role as bombshell Skippy on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Another link to that classic TV series comes from Hal Smith, who dons the Santa Claus costume in the bar. You might recall Mr. Smith as Otis, the town drunk in Mayberry. He was also the voice of Owl in numerous “Winnie the Pooh” cartoons and movies. Hope Holiday plays Mrs. MacDougall, Baxter’s dance partner on Christmas Eve. Ms. Holiday was known as “the voice”, and made frequent appearances in Billy Wilder films.

In addition to MacMurray’s Sheldrake, the other four managers to take advantage of Baxter and his apartment were played by David Lewis (a recurring role as the Warden on “Batman” TV series), Willard Waterman (well-known character actor in radio, TV, film), David White (Larry Tate on “Bewitched”), and Ray Walston. Mr. Walston had many memorable roles including teacher Joe Dobisch in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), JJ Singleton in THE STING (1973), co-starring with Bill Bixby in “My Favorite Martian”, and as Judge Henry Bone in “Picket Fences.” He’s yet another in the cast whose career lasted nearly 50 years.

The film’s lasting impact comes courtesy of the fun and energy and comedy on the surface, supported by a sadness lurking underneath. It offers a brilliant balance between lightness and serious social issues, and provides quite a statement of the times. A glance at the era shows us what a typical office environment was like. Women were subjected to endless harassment and unsolicited offers from the men in charge. They either had to find a way to deal with it, or quit and find another job – one where they’d likely face the same culture. Still, despite the sadness, the film does offer a bit of hope … plus some truly classic lines (including that last one). Girl with the “wrong guy” is common theme in movies and literature (and life), but “that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.” And the next time you are debating with friends over a list of Christmas movies, don’t forget Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT. Hey, if DIE HARD qualifies, this one surely must!

watch the trailer:


NINOTCHKA revisited (1939)

April 14, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been too far long since my last “revisited” piece. These are meant to be a combination of movie review and historical perspective on a particular classic movie that I’ve watched yet again. My choice this time is NINOTCHKA, nominated for 4 Oscars (including Best Picture nominees) in what is widely considered one of cinema’s greatest years, 1939.

The roster of director, writers, producers, cinematographer, composer, set director, set decorator, editor, costume designer and actors reads like a “Who’s Who” of Hollywood. The director-producer was Ernst Lubitsch, whose career included 3 Best Director Oscars for HEAVEN CAN WAIT 1943, THE LOVE PARADE 1929, and THE PATRIOT 1928. He also directed THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940) which was later adapted into YOU’VE GOT MAIL (1998 with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan). Lubitsch made a successful transition from silent films to talkies, and also directed 3 other films (a total of 6) that were Oscar nominated for Best Picture, including NINOTCHKA. He died of a heart attack at age 55 in 1947.

There are four credited writers for the film, each of which received an Oscar nomination. The original story was written by Hungarian writer Melchior Lengyel, and was adapted by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Walter Reisch. Mr. Wilder was nominated for 21 Oscars in his career, winning 6. Of course, he went on to become one of Hollywood’s most successful directors with classics like DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), SUNSET BLVD (1950), WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957), SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), and THE APARTMENT (1960). Co-writer Mr. Brackett scored 9 career Oscar nomination, including wins for THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), SUNSET BLVD (1950), and TITANIC (1953), the first two of which he shared with Mr. Wilder. Wilder and Brackett had quite a professional relationship, as they wrote 14 movies together, and on an odd personal note, Brackett’s second wife was the younger sister of his first wife (who had died). Mr. Reisch, a 4-time Oscar nominee, shared the TITANIC Oscar with Mr. Brackett, and also wrote the still-popular GASLIGHT (1944, directed by George Cukor).

Greta Garbo plays Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, better known as the titular Ninotchka. Ms. Garbo was born in Sweden, and became more than a movie star … she was an icon. She was a 4-time Best Actress nominee, including one for NINOTCHKA. This was her first U.S. comedy, which was such a big deal, that MGM used the tagline, “Garbo laughs!” (a riff on “Garbo Talks!”). This was her penultimate film, as after TWO-FACED WOMAN (another comedy with co-star Melvyn Douglas), she walked away from acting in 1941 at age 36 (imagine if Meryl Streep had retired after OUT OF AFRICA). Ms. Garbo lived in seclusion in New York City, cultivating the infamous “Garbo Mystique”. She never married, though John Gilbert standing all dressed up at the alter certainly thought she was going to! For other standout Garbo performances, see ANNA KARENINA (1935), CAMILE (1936) and QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933).

Melvyn Douglas plays Count Leon d’Algout, a debonair charmer who incites a (passive-aggressive) rivalry between Ninotchka and Grand Duchess Swana. Douglas’ character is one we more frequently expect from William Powell or Cary Grant (both were offered the role), but it would be a mistake to think Lubitsch “settled” on Douglas. He’s considered one of the finest actors ever, and one of the few to have won a Tony, an Emmy, and an Oscar (he won two). Douglas has played the on screen dad to both Paul Newman (HUD, 1963) and Robert Redford (THE CANDIDATE, 1972), as well as Gene Hackman’s dad (I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER, 1970) and Peter Sellers’ quasi-mentor in BEING THERE (1979). Mr. Douglas is the grandfather of well-known actress Illeana Douglas (TO DIE FOR, 1995; STIR OF ECHOES, 1999), although, to this day, he is best remembered as the actor who made Greta Garbo laugh!

While Ms. Garbo and Mr. Douglas dominate the screen time, the cast features some other interesting and talented players. Ina Claire plays the exiled Grand Duchess Swana. Ms. Claire was a young Vaudeville performer and part of Ziegfeld Follies before building a reputation as a sophisticated comedy stage actress. She was briefly married to John Gilbert after he was jilted by Garbo, and she only appeared in 7 “talkie” movies before retiring from acting in 1943. Bela Legosi appears as Commissar Razinin, and of course he is best remembered as Count Dracula from Tod Browning’s 1931 DRACULA for Universal. Legosi was a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and died flat broke after his affiliation with schlock-director Ed Wood. He appeared alongside fellow Monster Universe icon Boris Karloff in numerous films (including THE BLACK CAT, 1934; THE RAVEN, 1935), and was buried wearing one of his Dracula capes (not the one from the film). The 3 bumbling Russian envoys who so quickly adapt to western ways are played by actors who fled their homeland and emigrated to the U.S. due to war. Sig Ruman was a German who appeared in several Marx Brothers films, Felix Bressert was a German who had a medical practice as a “side gig”, and Alexander Granach was Hungarian, and also appeared in FW Murnau’s 1922 NOSFERATU. Lastly, Edwin Maxwell, who plays jeweler Mercier, appeared in 13 Best Picture nominees (4 winners) in a 15 year span.

Although the story is not a complicated one, it’s important to note the era. The world had not yet stabilized after WWI and was on the verge of WWII. Joseph Stalin was the leader of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, and one of the most feared men on the planet. That may not sound like the foundation for a comedy, and it’s important to note that the film is comedy, satire, and political commentary rolled into one. Three Russian envoys are sent to Paris to sell the jewels seized from Grand Duchess Swana during the Russian Revolution. They book the Royal Suite at a posh hotel (partly) because it has a large in-room safe for the jewels. As they are meeting with local jeweler Mercier to finalize the sale, Count Leon barges in to scuttle the sale and trick the envoys into returning the jewels to their rightful owner, the Grand Duchess. Soon, Ninotchka, a no-nonsense Russian, is dispatched to expedite the sale and send the first 3 envoys back home. Ninotchka and Count Leon meet by happenstance, and he’s immediately smitten with her, while she initially views him as little more than a curiosity.

The Eiffel Tower segment is pure brilliance in writing and acting. The dowdy Russian (Ninotchka) is interested in the global landmark for its technical achievement, while Count Leon shifts his charm into overdrive. Her line telling him to “suppress” his flirting is really our first glimpse of Garbo comedic timing … though it’s certainly not the last. The segment serves as a contrast in personalities – the face of communism versus the face of capitalism. Of course, it’s the “Garbo laughs!” moment in the café that most remember. Count Leon bumbles through joke after joke to no reaction, and once she cracks, she really lets loose. It’s a thing of beauty to watch.

As previously mentioned, it’s not just Lubitsch and Garbo and Douglas that make this a classic. The full production crew have a place in cinematic lore. Cinematographer William H Daniels won an Oscar for THE NAKED CITY (1948), and lensed 21 Garbo films. Editor Gene Ruggiero won an Oscar for AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956), and composer Werner Haymann was a 4-time Oscar nominee. Set-Art Director Cedric Gibbons was a one-time Edison Studios staffer, and won 11 Oscars over 26 years, eclipsing the 8 Oscars won by Set Director Edwin Willis. Adding to the intrigue is Costume Designer Adrian (married to actress Janet Gaynor) who is still revered as one of the best all time with over 250 movies in 30 years, though he’s even more famous for his designs outside of cinema.

1939 is arguably the greatest of all movie years since it also gave us: GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, STAGECOACH, MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, GOODBYE MR CHIPS, GUNGA DIN, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (the first of the series starring Basil Rathbone), OF MICE AND MEN, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and LOVE AFFAIR. Though it didn’t win any Oscars (4 nominations), film schools still study NINOTCHKA’s sardonic dialogue, and the way the ‘decadent’ western ways seduce the Russians. It’s clear why film history books refer to the “Lubitsch touch” – a comical and witty approach to serious topics. Beyond that, the MGM marketing department certainly knew how to capitalize on a guffawing Garbo. As with the best classic films, there is much to study, much to learn, and above all, much to enjoy.

watch the trailer:


NETWORK (1976) revisited

March 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It was the year after ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and the year before ANNIE HALL. 1976 was good for the underdog as Sylvester Stallone’s ROCKY won the Oscar for Best Picture, edging out such (now) classic films as TAXI DRIVER, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and the film we are going to talk about here, NETWORK.

I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” That’s the lasting quote most recite when asked about NETWORK. And since those folks are generally energetically emphatic as they recall the line, it says quite a bit about the influence and ongoing impact of the film. In fact, many believe much of what the film warned us about has come to pass – and is even happening right now!

The story begins with (fictional) UBS network news anchor Howard Beale being let go after many years on the job. His personal issues have become a problem, and unlike his competitors Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor, he’s no longer dependable. With two weeks remaining until his final broadcast, Beale goes off script and creates a firestorm of emotion in the viewing audience as he promises on-air suicide and rants about TV programming, journalism, and society as a whole. People across the country take him up on his direction to go to the window and yell out the above mentioned catchphrase. What follows cuts to the core of the film’s theme. Beale’s friends worry about his mental well-being, while others at the network are concerned only with the ratings bump, and how best to capitalize on his revived and re-engaged audience.

What had previously been a respectable newscast, transitions into what we recognize today as a Reality TV show. Beale is provided a pulpit to rail against the establishment and the general public for its acceptance or surrender. He criticizes those who have given up reading books and have allowed TV to guide their thoughts (sound familiar?). Beale proclaims “television is a carnival” even as he becomes its lead barker, and proudly accepts his new label as “an angry prophet denouncing hypocrisies of our time.” It’s now been over 40 years since the film premiered, and the parallels to today’s world are crystal clear.

As with any quality film, there are multiple sub-plots and story lines, as well as numerous characters we get to know. There is an ambitious program director willing to make her mark by any means necessary. All of this turmoil occurs while UBS is going through a corporate takeover, so we get a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes political wranglings of those in power and those striving to be. An inner-office romance blends with the reckoning that accompanies middle age, and the resulting cracks in a long-term marriage. In yet another jab at the TV industry, a brainstorm leads to the birth of the “Death Hour”, an idea for a series based on the illegal and often violent actions of a terrorist group called the Ecumenical Liberation Army. The negotiations with this group are either the funniest or the most dangerous of the film, depending on your perspective. In keeping with the era, we are reminded of the ongoing economic recession, and get news flashes on the situation with kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, plus the two assassination attempts on then President Gerald Ford. These doses of reality add the necessary gravitas to the film to prevent it from dipping into soap opera territory.

 The cast is stellar and deep. Peter Finch plays Howard Beale. Mr. Finch died in January 1977 at age 60, and a couple of months later was named the Oscar winner for Best Actor, becoming the first acting winner to be so awarded posthumously (later joined by Heath Ledger). He was previously nominated for SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (1971). Although he was talented and had a fine acting career, he might be best remembered in Hollywood lore for his ongoing affair with Vivian Leigh, who was married to Laurence Olivier at the time. Sir Olivier was also Mr. Finch’s acting mentor. In his role as Howard Beale, Finch got to chew scenery at the level every actor dreams of.

Faye Dunaway plays the ambitious program director Diana Christensen. She won the Oscar for Best Actress, and had previously been nominated for BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967, a role she chose over Elaine in THE GRADUATE) and CHINATOWN (1974). She also appeared (with her NETWORK co-star William Holden) in THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974), and is unfortunately remembered for her frightening portrayal of Joan Crawford in MOMMY DEAREST, giving wire hanger nightmares to an entire generation. Her first marriage was to Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, and more recently you’ll recall her as co-presenter with Warren Beatty, and part of the calamity at the 2017 Oscars when LA LA LAND was erroneously named Best Picture before the confusion was cleared and MOONLIGHT was awarded the statuette. Dunaway’s Diana is unabashedly ambitious and flounces through the newsroom taking no prisoners. Her relationship with Holden’s character has one of the more unusual on screen love-making sequences, as she continues to talk shop as things heat up.

William Holden plays Max Schumacher, the veteran news director forced out of his job for placing more importance on protecting his friend Howard than in increasing the ratings and revenue of the broadcast. Mr. Holden died in 1981 at age 63 from injuries sustained during a fall. He was a Best Actor Oscar winner for STALAG 17 (1953), and a nominee for NETWORK and SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). Mr. Holden also appeared in other classic films as PICNIC (1956), THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957), THE WILD BUNCH (1969), and THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974). He once shared an apartment with baseball great Hank Greenberg while both were serving in the military (1943), and was Best Man at the wedding of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. As Max, Holden captures the middle-age frustrations of a man unwilling to live with the cultural change of the new conglomerate owner, and equally uneasy with a marriage that has grown too stale. His stereotypical fling with the exciting younger woman ends as expected … only with a world class monologue.

Robert Duvall is Frank Hackett, the cut-throat front line manager brought in by the new owners to shake things up and create some profit.  Mr. Duvall is still working today at age 88, and began his career on TV in 1960. He won a Best Actor Oscar for TENDER MERCIES (1983), and was nominated six other times for performances in THE GODFATHER (1972), APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), THE GREAT SANTINI (1979), THE APOSTLE (1997), A CIVIL ACTION (1998), and THE JUDGE (2014). He also appeared in BULLITT (1968), MASH (as Frank Burns, 1970), THE GODFATHER II (1974), THE NATURAL (1984), and Larry McMurtry’s classic western series “Lonesome Dove” (1989). You might also remember him as Boo Radley, quietly hiding behind the door in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), though he’s likely best remembered for a certain character’s love of napalm in the morning. Duvall’s Hackett is a symbol of blind ambition and thirst for power.

 Beatrice Straight won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for playing Louise, Max’s scorned wife. She’s only in only a couple of scenes, and her approximately 5 minutes on screen remains the briefest to win an acting Oscar. Ms. Straight acted in very few movies, and spent most of her acting career in TV projects and on stage, though many will recall her as one of the scientists in POLTERGEIST (1982). When Louise rips into Max, she’s speaking for the untold number of middle-aged women who have been in that situation … simultaneously angry, hurt and afraid.

Ned Beatty plays Arthur Jensen, an eccentric network executive, and with basically one powerful and memorable scene, received the only Oscar nomination of his 45 year career. Mr. Beatty’s first screen appearance was in DELIVERANCE (1972) and his pig squeals haunted many viewers (including yours truly). He has also played delicious villains, the everyman, and buffoons, and appeared in such fine movies as NASHVILLE (1975), ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (NETWORK’s Oscar competition), SILVER STREAK (1976), SUPERMAN (1978), SUPERMAN II (1980), THE BIG EASY (1986), RUDY (1993), and more recently as the voice of Lotso in TOY STORY 3 (2010). He hasn’t acted in the past 5 years, and turns 82 years old this year.

You might think that is already an incredible lineup of acting legends, but we aren’t done yet. Wesley Addy appears as network executive Nelson Chaney, and Mr. Addy was also in one of my favorite film noirs, Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY (1955). Kathy Cronkite plays radical activist Mary Ann Gilford, and Ms. Cronkite is the daughter of news icon (and University of Texas graduate) Walter Cronkite (who also appears in clips). Conchata Ferrell is part of the UBS creative team, and Ms. Ferrell is now best known as Berta on “Two and a Half Men” and as the pizza shop proprietor in MYSTIC PIZZA (1988). Ken Kercheval plays Merrill Grant, and “Dallas” fans will recognize him as JR Ewing’s nemesis, Cliff Barnes. Making a brief appearance is Lane Smith, whom we all remember as Joe Pesci’s opposing counsel in MY COUSIN VINNY (1992), and in a blink-and-you’ll miss it role in the terrorist negotiation scene is an uncredited Lance Henriksen. Mr. Henriksen now has a cult following after his chilling role in ALIENS (1986). He’s also appeared in many other classic films over the years: DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), THE RIGHT STUFF (1983), THE TERMINATOR (1984), and he has over 250 screen credits. Lastly, you might recognize the voice of the film’s narrator. Lee Richardson is an actor and the voice of more than one hundred commercials.

NETWORK was directed by the great Sidney Lumet. He received one of his 5 Best Director Oscar nominations … the other four were 12 ANGRY MEN (1957), DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975), PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981), and THE VERDICT (1982). He also directed THE HILL (1965), SERPICO (1973), MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974), RUNNING ON EMPTY (1988), and his final film BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (2007). Mr. Lumet received an honorary Oscar in 2005, and died in 2007 at age 86. One of Lumet’s four wives was Gloria Vanderbilt, and his book “Making Movies” is a must read for any aspiring filmmaker.

Writer Paddy Chayefsky gets much of the credit for the success of NETWORK, and rightfully so. The script is a work of art, and brought him one of his three Oscars. The other two were MARTY (1955) and THE HOSPITAL (1971), making him one of only five three-time writing winners. He also wrote cult favorite ALTERED STATES (novel and screenplay) and adapted PAINT YOUR WAGON (1969) for the screen. Mr. Chayefsky’s influence can be seen (and especially heard) in the dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin, one of today’s most celebrated writers. Mr. Chayefsky died in 1981 at age 58.

The film won 4 Oscars (Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay) and was nominated for six others. The 3 acting wins tie it for most ever with A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), and it’s the only movie to date with 5 acting nominations. It’s also highly probable that NETWORK is the only film where the Best Actor and Best Actress don’t share any screen time together. Owen Roizman was nominated for Cinematography, and his other nominations include THE EXORCIST (1973), TOOTSIE (1982), WYATT EARP (1994) and THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) … that’s right, he filmed the infamous car chase scene. Alan Heim was nominated for Editing, an Oscar he would later win for ALL THAT JAZZ (1979).

Relevant seems too weak as a description to make the point of how the film’s message stands up today. Television should be a vehicle that informs and educates instead of serving up drivel like dating and quirky personality shows. Of course entertainment is an important piece of the puzzle, but we shouldn’t end up holding an empty bag. One of the final scenes in the film highlights the lack of scruples from the executive team. A final decision is made that at first seems over-the-top, but is it really so hard to believe? Howard Beale is a man who has lost, or is losing, his mind – but the network milks him until that cash cow is dry. We can’t help but note the themes that still hit home today: corporate and personal greed, ambition, grief, mismatched relationships, the misuse of power, the willingness to sit back and accept, and the fear of life with no purpose.

ROCKY was the only 1976 film to eclipse $100 million at the box office, and in addition to the other Oscar nominated films listed in the first paragraph, 1976 also blessed us with horror classics CARRIE and THE OMEN, thrillers like MARATHON MAN (“Is it safe?”) and KING KONG (Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges), BOUND FOR GLORY (the 5th Best Picture nominee) and Barbra Streisand’s A STAR IS BORN, comedy classics BAD NEWS BEARS and THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN, and Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, FAMILY PLOT. 1976 was also the year we lost Agatha Christie, Busby Berkeley, Howard Hughes, Fritz Lang, Dalton Trumbo, Alastair Sim, and Sal Mineo (a still unsolved murder). Forty-three years later, NETWORK lives on as a lesson we have yet to learn.

***NOTE: another thing to notice is the natural teeth of Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall and Peter Finch. Comparing it to the blindingly bright pearly whites of today’s actors provides quite the contrast.

watch the trailer:


CLUE (1985) revisited

October 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. All movie watchers have at least two categories of films: those they will watch any time of any day, even if they can only catch a few minutes; and those they can’t imagine ever watching again since the first time through was so painful/miserable/boring/unentertaining. Now you may have other sub-categories as well, but you likely have at least those two. For me, the first category (the good one) includes both GODFATHER movies, PULP FICTION, THE RIGHT STUFF, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, JAWS, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, REAR WINDOW, and well … there are actually far too many to list!  The second category is comprised of: THE BOUNTY HUNTER, PROBLEM CHILD, BORAT, TORCHLIGHT, DEATH BECOMES HER, CADDYSHACK 2, just about every Jerry Lewis movie without Dean Martin, and well … there are plenty more, but I’m getting a bit nauseous thinking about this.

The point is that for 33 years, CLUE has been on my ‘never-watch-again’ list. All these years later, I’m unable to provide any specifics about my initial viewing experience, other than it featured Martin Mull (never been a fan) and was entirely too silly and over-the-top for my ‘highly refined’ tastes (although I like “The Three Stooges” and Peter Sellers’ “Pink Panther movies)  A friend, whose movie judgment I trust, has been encouraging/goading me into giving CLUE another try … to the extreme that she recently gifted me the DVD, thereby removing inconvenience as an excuse for avoiding it any longer. Anyone familiar with my “revisited” blog entries will know that what follows won’t be a traditional movie review. Expect some scattershooting.

So here I sit, pondering the movie universe and the ramifications of my having very much enjoyed this second viewing of CLUE – laughing many times and making note of just how clever it is … even amidst the packaging of silliness and slapstick in which it comes wrapped. There are, as you might imagine, some odd things associated with the film. First of all, it’s based on a Parker Brothers (now Hasbro) board game. Would you be excited about a Checkers movie?  How about Yahtzee or Candyland? Doubtful. Next, few films have a writer/director like Jonathan Lynn. Mr. Lynn is Cambridge educated, has written best-selling books, is known for a popular British TV series, produced and directed many stage plays, is an accomplished actor – he even played Hitler on stage (in a comedy), and has directed other comedy films such as MY COUSIN VINNY (1992) and THE WHOLE NINE YARDS (2000) . In yet another odd twist, Mr. Lynn co-wrote the CLUE screenplay with John Landis, who of course, directed the comedy classics ANMAL HOUSE (1978) and THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980).

Set in a creepy New England mansion on a stormy 1954 evening – replete with on-cue thunder and lightning – the twice Oscar nominated composer John Morris (he co-wrote the BLAZING SADDLES theme with Mel Brooks) greets us with a tongue-in-cheek score seemingly sampled from every late night horror movie from the 1950’s. A group of splendidly dressed guests are arriving for a dinner party after each received a mysterious and provocative letter from the evening’s anonymous host. We soon learn that the letters’ connective tissue is that each of these folks are somehow associated with … GASP … the government!  Even in 1985, this was a sure-fire way to characterize people as villainous.

It doesn’t take long for the first murder to occur, and other dead bodies are soon to follow – each in mysterious ways – leaving much doubt, and no shortage of suspects, as to the identity of the culprit. In fact, no one is to be trusted (other than possibly those already murdered). The confined environment of the mansion adds to the suspense, confusion, and comedy of the proceedings – as does a stellar cast of actors who know how to be funny in a serious kind of way.

Tim Curry stars as Wadsworth, who we assume is the butler and the fast talker and walker who seems to be running the show for the unknown host. Mr. Curry, of course, is forever enshrined in midnight movie lore as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975). Wadsworth is assisted in the evening’s affairs by Yvette, played with jiggly wonder by Colleen Camp in a French maid uniform barely able to contain her assets. Ms. Camp has been a hard working actress since the 1970’s, was a two-time Razzie nominee in the 90’s, and can also be seen in this year’s THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS. The guests include Mrs. Peacock, played by Eileen Brennan, best known as the sadistic Drill Instructor in PRIVATE BENJAMIN (1980) and the heart-of-gold waitress in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971); the dressed in black Mrs. White, played by comedy giant and two-time Oscar nominee Madeline Kahn, so terrific in her memorable roles in BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN; Mr. Plum, played by Christopher Lloyd, his shock of white hair highlighting the BACK TO THE FUTURE franchise; Mr. Green, played by Michael McKean who only the year before was David St Hubbins in THIS IS SPINAL TAP, has been recently seen as savant lawyer Chuck McGill on “Better Call Saul”, and is likely the only relative of a signer of the Declaration of Independence in the movie; Colonel Mustard, played by the aforementioned Martin Mull whose career covers stand-up comedy, songwriting, TV series, movies, pro football, and his love of art; Miss Scarlet, played Lesley Ann Warren, nominated the previous year for her role in VICTOR VICTORIA, the star of one of my favorite offbeat 80’s films CHOOSE ME, and whose ex-husband John Peters was executive producer on CLUE; and finally, Mr. Boddy played by Lee Ving, known best for his punk rock band Fear. There are also a few cameos worth noting: Howard Hesseman from “WKRP in Cincinnati” appears as The Chief; Jane Wiedlin, a founding member of the band The Go-Gos who had a mega-hit with “Vacation” has a brief appearance as The Singing Telegram Girl; and Bill Henderson appears as a cop – this after a jazz singing career that crossed paths with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, Quincy Jones and others. Sharp-eyed viewers might also recognize the stranded motorist as actor Jeffrey Kramer, seen in JAWS as the deputy putting out ‘Beach Closed’ signs.

Filmmakers Lynn and Landis drew inspiration not just from the board game, but also such films as Neil Simon’s MURDER BY DEATH (1976, with Eileen Brennan), Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945) and MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974), TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1965, based on Ms. Christie’s stage version), and William Castle’s classic horror film HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959). CLUE has a very theatrical look and feel, as something that would work equally well on stage as on screen. The strong presence of Tim Curry almost forces us to notice some similarities to THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, though CLUE offers no musical interludes – other than the exceptional use of the song “Life is But a Dream”.

As far as I know, CLUE was the first film to be distributed to theatres with three different endings (quite a feat for a murder mystery). With the initial release, you were likely to see a different ending than someone at a theatre across town. Fortunately, the Blu-Ray version provides all three – none more likely or reasonable than the other (that’s part of the gag). Fox recently announced a remake of CLUE starring Ryan Reynolds is in the works. Expect it to look much different than the 1985 version. Many of the jokes from the film wouldn’t be acceptable or tolerated in this current age of political correctness, yet Madeline Kahn, with her impeccable comedic delivery offers up the timeless line: “Life after death is as improbable as sex after marriage”. Yes, the film is campy and screwball and filled with slapstick. However, it may also be described as a crackling-dialogue-driven, whip-smart whodunit movie dressed up as an outrageous slapstick comedy … something I failed to recognize on my first viewing more than 30 years ago. Consider that mistake corrected.

watch the trailer:

 


YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968, animation) revisited

July 7, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “It was 50 years ago, Sgt Pepper taught the band to play”. OK, I know that’s not the lyric, but 50 fits better than 20 when we are talking about the latest re-mastered 4K version of the classic animated YELLOW SUBMARINE from The Beatles. Originally released in 1968, the story is by Lee Minoff and is based on the Lennon-McCartney song of the title. Additional dialogue and story elements were contributed by (at least) four other writers, including Erich Segal of LOVE STORY fame, and after all these years, the film not only remains quite entertaining, it has attained a certain legendary status.

Directed by George Dunning (animation producer), also instrumental in The Beatles “unaffiliated” animated TV series of the same era, the film requires a bit of historical perspective to bring the full picture into focus. This was the year before Woodstock, and the Beatles were no longer the four fresh faced lads from Liverpool. Their songs had not only changed the music world, it had changed them as individuals. Much of their charm had turned to cynicism, and drug use was prevalent. The band reluctantly agreed to allow production of this animated movie for the sole purpose of fulfilling their 3 film contract with United Artist (A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, HELP!). Other than the songs and a closing segment, they were barely involved … not even voicing their own characters.

The true legacy is what we see on screen, and after 50 years, it remains magical. The psychedelic pop art visuals were unlike anything most of us had ever seen. The colors and images seemed to explode in vibrancy and come alive before our eyes. Some have mistakenly credited pop artist Peter Max as the man behind the colorful images, and fans of Monty Python (especially Terry Gilliam) will easily recognize the stylistic influence. Sharp ears will pick up references to Beatles lyrics not included on the soundtrack, and much of the dialogue captures the droll tone of Lennon or the whimsy of McCartney. However, we never stop thinking about how much more effective this could have been with John, Paul, George and Ringo providing the voices.

An extended opening sequence provides the basics of the story – The Blue Meanies are coming (!) and they intend to expunge all music and color from Pepperland. The only way to stop them is with Beatles music. Once we ‘understand’ the story, we hear Ringo’s vocals kick off the title song over the opening credits. Through the adventure we meet some fascinating and creative characters, see an abundance of green apples (the logo for Apple Records), play spot the icon (with actual photographs), laugh along with Ringo and his “hole” in the pocket, and catch the essence of Beatles wit, though the dialogue is sometimes a bit muddled.

Of course, beyond the animation, it’s the music that matters. Two songs that stand out because of the corresponding animation are “Eleanor Rigby” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.  Some of the 11 Beatles songs mish-mashed from various albums include:  “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “All You Need is Love”, “All Together Now”, and “When I’m Sixty-Four”. There are also a couple of George Harrison songs that aren’t otherwise available, and a personal favorite, “Hey Bulldog”, which has its own sequence, and was originally only included in the UK movie version. We also notice the beautiful orchestra music composed by long-time Beatles producer George Martin.

At the time it was released, hippies would claim the movie looks better when you’re stoned, and it’s likely for those folks, that sentiment held true for most things in life. The message of the day and one present in much of the Beatles’ work, is that of Love. It’s a message that rings true today, and also part of why the film works so well for both kids and adults. Although we may be a bit disappointed that the fab four don’t provide the voices of their characters, the stunning visuals and classic songs make this a film for everyone. The short live action sequence at the end where we see the real John, Paul, George and Ringo is simply the cherry on top … or is that an Apple?

watch the (U.S.) trailer:


THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928) revisited

June 20, 2018

Oak Cliff Film Festival 2018

 

 

 

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a rare treat to watch a 90 year old silent movie. Especially in a remastered format. Especially on the big screen. Especially at a historic theatre. Especially with a nearly packed house. And especially with a live score! The 7th annual Oak Cliff Film Festival, held at the Texas Theatre (opened 1931), afforded just such a treat with its Friday evening screening.

Most know the story of Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc), a teenage heroine of France for her role in the Hundred Year War. She claimed that she received spiritual and religious guidance through voices and visions. Once she was captured by English allies, she was charged with heresy and burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431. A quarter century later, the Pope declared her a martyr and she became a symbol of France – canonized as a saint in 1920. Of course, here the story is as much about the film as it is the martyr and historical figure.

The eyes are what first grab our attention. The eyes of actress Maria Falconetti as Joan of Arc. It was Falconetti’s only screen appearance, and though she spent the rest of her career on stage, this role cemented her place in cinematic history. Without the benefit of sound and voice, the silent era performer had to emote through eyes, facial expression and body movement. Few ever did it better than Falconetti. It’s gut-wrenching to watch the church counsel attempt to break her resolve. Our minds hear the intensity of their voices though we only read the subtitles.

Renowned Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer directs the script from writer Joseph Delteil (taken mostly from the transcripts of the trial), and the cinematography is through the eye of 5 time Oscar nominee Rudolph Mate’ (FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, PRIDE OF THE YANKEES). It’s impossible not to notice a style so different from modern day filmmaking. The harsh lighting and almost exclusive use of close-ups and medium shots bring an immediacy of which we aren’t accustomed. The single piece set is quite unusual and provides a stage aura. Another thing that stands out is the editing style. Continuity of scene wasn’t important here. What mattered was the sense of frantic pacing and over-bearing stress brought on by the rapid-fire questioning. We share the claustrophobic feeling with Joan, though of course, we know where this is all headed.

As part of this special showing, the Oak Cliff Film Festival arranged for a live score performed by composer George Sarah, a 4 piece chamber orchestra, and a vocal group accompanying the music.

Perhaps this meant even more to me since I visited Rouen last year, and the lasting legacy (almost 600 years) of this courageous young woman is evident throughout much of France. The re-mastered film is stunning to look at, and even more historically important knowing that the film had long thought to be lost to a fire. The story and the film are quite something to experience.

watch the trailer:


CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) revisited

September 17, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Despite my fascination and quasi-obsession with movies, the Science Fiction genre has never really appealed to me. Sure, there have been a few dozen exceptions over the years (and it depends how you categorize certain movies), but it’s the non-classics in the genre that just never seem to connect with my love of film. So when Steven Spielberg states that he doesn’t consider his beloved CLOSE ENCOUNTER OF THE THIRD KIND (CE3K) to be a “sci-fi” film, you won’t see me get offended, or even offer a contrary argument. Of course, the difference is that Mr. Spielberg makes his claim based on his belief of life “out there”, while I simply have no desire to defend the category label.

For its 40th anniversary, the film is making the rounds in selected theatres, and the big screen is a must for this gem. Released in the same year and just a few months after George Lucas’ groundbreaking STAR WARS, Spielberg’s follow-up to JAWS confirmed his status as a revolutionary filmmaker, and cemented 1977 as one of the finest movie years of all-time (including ANNIE HALL, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, A BRIDGE TOO FAR, JULIA). CE3K would become the first of 7 Best Director Oscar nominations for Spielberg (inexplicably only one win to date).

Spielberg is credited as the writer, though many contributors are “uncredited”: Hal Barwood (now known for video games), Jerry Belson (Emmy winner for “The Odd Couple” and his work with Tracey Ullman), and John Hill (QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER), and Matthew Robbins (CRIMSON PEAK). Paul Schrader and Walter Hill also contributed to the script, making this the veritable vegetable soup of screenplays. The film came at a time when Columbia Pictures was struggling, so in order to remain under budget, Spielberg had to make some compromises on the final version. In a highly unusual development in the movie industry, Spielberg was able to revise, re-edit, and add new scenes to a 1980 re-release of the film – realizing his original vision.

Richard Dreyfuss stars as Roy Neary, a blue collar family man from Muncie, Indiana. With an acting career spanning more than 50 years (many recognize his baby face in THE GRADUATE as he offers to call the cops), it was AMERICAN GRAFFITI that caused his career to take off, leading to JAWS in 1975, and his stellar 1977 with both CE3K and THE GOODBYE GIRL. He later overcame a severe drug habit to star in such crowd favorites as WHAT ABOUT BOB?, MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS and “Madoff”. His wife Ronnie in CE3K is played by Teri Garr, whose acting career also covers more than 50 years, including small roles in five different Elvis movies in the 1960’s and her best known roles in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and TOOTSIE (for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination). In recent years, she has had to turn her energy and attention to health issues.

Melinda Dillon stars as Jillian, mother to young Barry (Cary Guffey) who is abducted by the aliens. Ms. Dillon received her first (of two) Oscar nomination for her work in the film, and is still seen annually breaking a leg lamp in the holiday favorite A CHRISTMAS STORY, although she retired from acting ten years ago. Young Mr. Guffey is now 45 years old and hasn’t acted since 1985. Director Stanley Kubrick considered him for the role of Danny in THE SHINING, but ultimately decided on Danny Lloyd, another youngster who decided against remaining in showbiz.

 Francois Truffaut was an Oscar nominated director known for kicking off the French New Wave of Cinema with his all-time classics THE 400 BLOWS and JULES AND JIM, and it was quite surprising to see him cast in the role of UFO expert Claude Lecombe. It’s likely that cinephile Spielberg loved the idea of working with a peer whose work he so admired. Truffaut is a significant screen presence despite his challenges with the English language (which led to “dialogue cheat sheets” throughout filming). Bob Balaban, so familiar to “Seinfeld” fans, plays the translator, while Justin Dreyfuss (Richard’s real life nephew) is the noisy and obnoxious son during the hectic family scene. Roberts Blossom is the one in the film who admits to spotting Bigfoot, and is best known as Kevin’s neighbor in HOME ALONE and the braced-up car seller in CHRISTINE. He was also a well-respected poet before passing away in 2011. Other familiar faces include Lance Henrikson (ALIENS), George DiCenzo (BACK TO THE FUTURE), Carl Weathers (ROCKY), CY YOUNG (OK, more a name than a face), Bill Thurman (Coach Popper from THE LAST PICTURE SHOW), and gas mask salesman Gene Rader, who hails from Paris, Texas.

 Desert discoveries are a key here, and offer more insight into Spielberg’s attention to history. The “lost” plane is a tribute to real life Flight 19 which disappeared in 1945, and The Cotopaxi was a real cargo ship that sunk … both becoming part of Bermuda Triangle lore. Devil’s Tower in Wyoming is also significant here, and it’s Spielberg’s nod to John Ford’s frequent use of Monument Valley in his westerns. Spielberg has admitted to watching Ford’s THE SEARCHERS dozens of times while filming CE3K. Another tribute comes in the form of a wind-up monkey with cymbals. It was previously seen in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and can also be viewed as a precursor to the infamous clown in POLTERGEIST.

Spielberg acknowledges being inspired by President Nixon and the Watergate scandal. He wondered what else the government might be hiding from us. Remarkably, he gets his point across with a total absence of modern day cynicism. As opposed to what we usually see these days, the military isn’t trying to bomb the mothership and citizens aren’t retreating in a panic to bunkers. Instead, the military is working to keep the public safe (albeit through some sneaky strategy), the scientists are approaching communication through a protocol steeped in research and data gathering, and Dreyfuss and Dillon are trying to figure out why they were “chosen”. Spielberg delivers sweetness and warmth rather than a show of power and might. It’s such a pleasant viewing experience to watch people we like and to whom we can relate.

Some points of interest related to the film include a cameo from famed UFOologist J Allen Hynek, who is seen smoking a pipe as the abductees are released from the mothership. Mr. Hynek actually created the phrases Close Encounters of the First, Second, and Third Kinds. ABC news anchor Howard K Smith is seen since CBS would not grant permission for Walter Cronkite to appear. The film’s stunning visual effects come courtesy of Douglas Trumball, who also collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Of course, the Visual Effects Oscar that year went to STAR WARS, and that speaks to the contrast between the films. STAR WARS is clearly a special effects movie, while CE3K is much more of a character study … a study of human emotions.

 As for other Oscar categories, the film was nominated for 9 total, with the only win going to Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, though it was also awarded a Special Achievement Oscar for Sound Effects Editing. Spielberg was nominated, but Woody Allen won Best Director for ANNIE HALL, and Richard Dreyfuss actually won the Best Actor Oscar that year for THE GOODBYE GIRL. The great John Williams was of course nominated for his iconic 5 note melody (following up his immortal JAWS theme), and he instead won the Oscar that year for … repeat after me … STAR WARS. A quirky note on the music – the “voice” of the mothership was a tuba, not an instrument that typically gets much publicity.

While Stanley Kubrick opted not to show aliens in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, this film not only puts the aliens front and center, it reminds us to keep an open mind to those unfamiliar to us … a lesson that is still important today. The film was named to the National Film Registry in 2007, and seeing it on the big screen allows for the full impact of awe and wonderment. It’s rated PG and can be enjoyed by most ages. Spielberg only asks that you leave the cynicism at home.

watch the trailer:


OAK CLIFF FILM FESTIVAL 2017 recap

June 19, 2017

OAK CLIFF FILM FESTIVAL 2017 recap

 The 6th annual Oak Cliff Film Festival ran June 8-11 and included even more local venues this year … further proof of the organizers’ commitment to spotlighting this unique neighborhood within the monstrosity known as the Dallas-Ft Worth metroplex. Despite the challenging schedule (much overlap, and only one screening per movie), the programming is a gift for true film lovers. I saw ten movies over the four days (it would have been 11 if not for the cluster of Sunday evening – more on that later) and not a single clunker in the bunch. For a festival that prides itself on unusual films and deep cuts, that’s quite a tribute to those responsible.

Below are quick comments on each of the films I watched, and at the end you’ll find some closing commentary on the OCFF.

Thursday June 8 – Opening Night

LEMON – When introducing the festival’s opening night spotlight feature, director Janicza Bravo described her finished project as “a bummer, but not a bummer”. She and her co-writer and lead actor (and real life spouse) Brett Gelman clearly had a great time with the film that took 5 years to complete. It’s an unconventional look at Isaac (played by Gelman), a guy so severely socially awkward that he might lose a two man race for “most likely to succeed” to Napoleon Dynamite.

Isaac’s girlfriend of 10 years (Judy Greer) is blind, and has lost all interest in their relationship. When she dumps him, Isaac’s life somehow becomes even more bizarre thanks to two Tiger finches, his job as an acting teacher, an attempt to get close with an actor (Michael Cera, sporting Gene Wilder tribute hair) and his near-criminal bonding moment with the elderly grandmother (Marla Gibbs) of his new romantic interest (a terrifically confounded Nia Long).

The cast is exceptionally deep for a low-budget indie and also includes Gillian Jacobs, Rhea Perlman, Fred Melamed, Martin Starr, David Paymer, Jeff Garlin, Jon Daly and Megan Mullally. Each of these talented folks offers up a dose of eccentricity to keep us viewers on our toes. There are many laughs to be had, and Mr. Gelman somehow delivers a performance that is a step backwards from deadpan. His walk alone is worth the price of admission, as is the use of such unusual music as “A Million Matzoh Balls”. The film is quite funny, but also a bit sad. Ms. Bravo’s description of her film is spot-on.

PORTO – Last year’s tragic death of Anton Yelchin becomes more heart-breaking every time we see him on screen. This is one of his final films and director Gabe Klinger and writer Larry Gross deliver a Portugal-based quasi-Before Sunrise story that mercifully chooses a much different path than the incessant babbling of that film.

Rather than narcissistic meanderings, this film explores how we deal with memories, as well as the fallout of an intense and short-lived connection formed mostly through a (prolonged and extended) sexual encounter between two otherwise broken people.

The film is divided into 3 sections: Jake, Mati, and Mati and Jake. In addition to the perspectives, the filmmaker utilizes multiple aspects and film formats (8mm, 16mm, 35mm), and we were fortunate to see it presented in 35mm. In addition to the human observations and insight, this is a film techie’s dream come true. So many various looks for a beautifully shot (by Wyatt Garfield) film is extremely rare for a low-budget indie. There is both a retro look and stunning shots such as those with Mati and the red umbrella, and the couple on a bench in the late night fog.

The splendid Lucie Lucas makes her feature film debut as Mati and the camera loves her, as does Jake … or at least he believes he does. She manages to capture both the flirtatious sparkle of the girl who first encounters Jake, and the less-energetic, more resigned to the future look of the woman who has made her life choice.

Toss in a Proust quote, some wonderful piano work, and the beauty of coastal town Porto Portugal, and the result is a piercing look at the fragility of humanity and passion of star-crossed connections.

Friday June 9

GOLDEN EXITS – Director Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Phillip) conjures up an odd blending of Woody Allen classics Interiors (itself a tribute to Bergman) and Hannah and Her Sisters (with the funny parts removed). The paths of families and characters cross sometimes organically, and sometimes by force. The film was nominated for a Grand Jury award at Sundance, and it features all of the usual relationship traits – insecurity and mistrust, and anything else that leads to disenchantment and unhappiness. Yet somehow voices are never raised and anger seems (mostly) a distant emotion.

Naomi (Emily Browning, Sucker Punch) arrives from Australia and begins working for Nick (Adam Horovitz, former Beastie Boy) on a project to archive his deceased father-in-law’s documents/materials. Nick was hired by the estate trustee and his bitter sister-in-law Gwendolyn (Mary-Louise Parker), and she seems to be less miserable whenever she is busting his chops about the pace of his work – and anything else she can target. Nick receives little support from his wife and Gwendolyn’s sister Alyssa (Chloe Sevigny), who has plenty of reasons to lack faith in her husband. Nick has unpure thoughts regarding Naomi, but she is focused on Buddy (Jason Schwartzman) despite his marriage to Jess (Analeigh Tipton, Crazy Stupid Love).

If it sounds like a mess, it surely is … but it’s also an intricate tapestry of lies, love, jealousy and deficiencies of those in relationships. The film opens with Emily Browning singing “New York Groove”, which perfectly sets the stage for this strong ensemble cast playing cold, reserved characters who talk about seeing films with “normal” people in them – much like this one.

A LIFE IN WAVES (doc) – By opening this documentary with footage of Suzanne Ciani’s appearance on an early David Letterman show, it’s as if director Brett Whitcomb is trying to convince us that she is a celebrity and someone whose story is worth learning. Of course he’s correct, even if her story and career require no added publicity or marketing.

Ms. Ciani is a talented musician known best for her synth music featured in numerous commercials (Coca Cola) and video games. Her innovative sound design and effects may be difficult to categorize (New Age?), but the effectiveness is beyond question. We learn about her mentor Don Buchla (inventor of a 1963 synthesizer), her Wellesley alumni award, and her battle with breast cancer that led to her relocation from NYC to California in 1992. Some amazing archival footage takes us full circle through the three stages of career, and by the end, we are in awe of her talent, and fully admire her as a person.

Saturday June 10

LA BARRACUDA – Stuck with the festival’s least desirable time slot, co-directors Julia Halperin and Jason Cortland still managed to walk away as the Grand Jury Prize Winner – Narrative Feature. Filmed in Austin with Texas Hill Country pacing, the unconventional editing displays the messy legacy left behind by a deceased Country & Western singer of some fame.

The singer’s daughter Merle (Allison Tolman) is living her life of quiet desperation when she is surprised on her own front porch by Sinaloa (Sophie Reid), who claims to be Merle’s half-sister from England. Adding to the mess is Merle’s mother played by JoBeth Williams, who understandably wants little to do with Sinaloa. Ms. Reid plays Sinaloa in such a way that no one ever really knows whether her motivations are pure or vengeful. She’s quite creepy at times.

Musical director Colin Gilmore (son of Jimmie Dale Gilmore) ensures that the music throughout is spot on and crucial to telling the story. A campfire sing-a-long is a real ice-breaker for the sisters who share various mommy issues and daddy issues. Tack on Merle’s fiancé issues and work issues, and Sinaloa’s chip on the shoulder, and the scorpion line (it’ll come back to sting you) proves quite the foreshadowing. The rage within can rise up at any time and within any of us. The only questions are when, by whom and how severe.

TRUE CONVICTION (doc) – The people we tend to pull for in life are those who seemingly always find a way to turn the proverbial lemons into lemonade. Chris, Steven and Johnnie are the ultimate example of this. The three ex-convicts have decades of time served between them, and they also share exoneration after being wrongly convicted.

A Special Award winner at Tribeca, Jamie Meltzer’s film also took home this year’s OCFF Grand Jury prize – Documentary feature. These three gentlemen refuse to lash out at the system that did them wrong, and instead have formed an organization that researches and assists those in the same situation which they once found themselves in – behind bars and wrongly convicted. It’s an admirable cause and a career designed to turn a negative into a positive. We follow different cases as the men meet with a “false confession consultant”, as well as a prosecutor and detective from an old case gone bad. They acknowledge the danger in playing with the hope of convicts, and the film doesn’t shy away from the personal travails of all three. Steve and Chris face severe challenges, while Johnnie looks to start over in life. We never doubt the frustration these men have over the system that favors quick closure over accuracy, and more impressively, we are certain of their passion for their mission.

SANTA SANGRE (1989) – I typically avoid reparatory films at festivals, but made an exception in order to experience an Alejandro Jodorowsky double feature. At its core, this classic from almost 30 years ago is a horror film – and a very good one with the darkest of humor and surreal elements. But it’s also a psychological look at how childhood experiences form our character in life, and that’s not always a pretty sight.

Adan Jodorowsky plays boy magician Fenix, the son of a circus knife thrower (Guy Stockwell) and trapeze performer mother (Blanca Guerra). He befriends a young mute understudy Alma (Faviola Elenka Tapia in her only screen performance) who is horribly mistreated by the Tattooed Lady (a terrific Thelma Tixou). A particularly gruesome scene leaves Fenix traumatized and we then catch up with him some 15 years later (now played by Adan brother Axel Jodorowsky). Linked by witnessing the vivid violence, Alma tracks down Fenix in an effort to make things right for both of them.

Jodorowsky’s visuals are remarkable and are often tributes to those filmmakers he most admires. It’s certainly a movie for adults, but only those adults who are willing to dig in and follow the psychology of events that may seem cruel and meaningless – but often mean a great deal.

ENDLESS POETRY – The second half of the Jodorowsky double feature is the newest film from the famed director and it’s offered as a surreal autobiography – a story of his family and specifically, his time in Chile prior to leaving for Paris. The surreal part comes courtesy of his mother who operatically sings her every line, the head of a water buffalo perched above his parents’ headboard, an ultra modern bar that defies description – outside of the wakes held for customers/staff, and the inclusion of dwarfs and clowns (recurring in numerous Jodorowsky projects).

This is a continuation piece to Jodorowsky’s 2014 Dance of Reality, and features Adan Jodorowsky as the son (and also the film’s composer), and Brontis Jodorowsky as the father. Additionally, Alejandro himself periodically appears on screen in what works as kind of a live narration of his own thoughts during some segments of his life.

Life philosophy permeates every scene and every character. The mother experiences a run of frustration for every good-intentioned cake she bakes. There is an “ultrapianist” to showcase why you never want to invite one to your own party. The red-headed muse is a powerful character that seems to both make and break our protagonist, as does a relationship with a fellow poet, and life in an artist commune. All of these play into Jodorowsky’s apparent ideals of being fully engaged in youth, and then detaching in old age … making up what he calls “the sad joy of living”.

Sunday June 11

INFINITY BABY – Sometimes at film festivals we get a “work in progress”, and at only 71 minutes run time, it’s entirely possible that’s what we saw here – although director Bob Byington made no such claim in his pre or post screening comments. However, his comments and his films make it obvious he very much values comedy and laughter.

Filmed in Austin, two story lines intersect at a company run by Nick Offerman. His nephew and marketing representative is played (exceedingly well) by Kieran Culkin, who is the ultimate example of a shallow, self-centered millennial with commitment issues. His love life is a vicious circle that we witness: he falls quickly and hard for a woman, and then immediately begins finding reasons the relationship won’t work. In what’s supposed to be a test, he has them meet his “mother” (an awesome Megan Mullally) who proceeds to destroy their confidence and belittle their personality – putting an end to any further plans with her “son”. The other story revolves around two lackeys (Martin Starr, Kevin Corrigan) who report to Culkin. Their job is to deliver babies to the customers. What babies, you ask? Well, therein lies the hook.

In the not-too-distant-future, a stem cell experiment has gone awry and resulted in a batch of “infinity babies” that don’t age. Now anyone who has ever been a parent knows full well how frightening the concept of having a perpetual infant seems, so to think anyone would take on this duty for a mere $20,000 is absurd at best. And absurdity seems to be director Byington’s and writer Onur Tukel main objective, especially when we learn the truth behind Culkin’s momma scheme, and as it relates to the two lackeys making what they decide is a wise financial decision.

Also joining the terrific comedy ensemble cast is Noel Wells, Stephen Root and Trieste Kelly Dunn, who is a standout as one of Culkin’s girlfriends. The black and white look plays into the futuristic tale, and having Culkin’s character as one who is stuck in never-grow-up mode finely parallels the infinity baby story. Plenty of laughs here, but just be careful the next time a significant other invites you to “meet my mother”.

THE LITTLE HOURS – It’s not often when the obvious comparison to a movie is the classic 1975 comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and it’s even more unusual for such a film to be making the rounds at festivals where schedules tend to be loaded with serious and dark subject matter. Proving yet again that its programmers aren’t tied to convention, this was the third outlandish comedy I watched at this year’s Oak Cliff Film Festival.

The year is 1347 when writer/director Jeff Baena’s story kicks off outside a convent where it takes less than a couple of minutes to realize that these aren’t your usual nuns. Profanity spews forth, as does laughter from the audience. Dave Franco plays a servant who has a good reason to flee from his King (Nick Offerman) and agree to a cockamamie plan suggested by the local priest (John C Riley). The plan has Franco working at the convent pretending to be deaf mute, while struggling to decline the advances from the aforementioned nuns played by Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, Kate Micucci (Unleashed).

Plot is barely an after-thought here, and most of the movie plays like interrelated Saturday Night Live skits. In fact, Fred Armisen and Molly Shannon are part of the ensemble, along with Paul Reiser and Adam Pally. Raunchy medieval comedies filled with debauchery and outrageously misdirected nuns could be classified as a bit of a stretch; however, Mr. Baena has adapted this from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron”, and his use of modern day dialogue and attitudes, delivered by an ultra talented comedic cast, makes this one to watch after a particularly rough day or week of work. You’ll surely laugh and enjoy the temporary reprieve from real life … even without any killer rabbits or Knights who say “ni”.

A GHOST STORY – though this was #1 on my list of films to see during the festival, an extremely long line penalized those of us who watched the movie immediately preceding the screening. So even though I’ll have to catch this one later, the crush of humanity awaiting entry was a reminder that the OCFF has arrived.

Conclusion

This year’s Oak Cliff Film Festival gave every indication that the previously little-known neighborhood event had officially grown into a full-fledged nationally recognized festival. Of course, with that comes the good and the bad. In the positive column, a diverse and sought-after programming schedule now includes some films from large festivals (Sundance, Toronto), and also ensures the attendance of many writers, directors and producers. The challenges brought by success include crowd size that is difficult to manage … long lines for drinks, concessions and theatre entry, and of course, the cluster brought on by the closing night film and the penalty for those in the previous screening. On the whole, it’s wonderful to see such devoted folks finally receiving the recognition they deserve for building this dynamic event from scratch in a neighborhood they have helped revitalize.