Friday, April 29, 2011

What's Your Favorite Movie? Part 2

Part 1 of this self-serving blog entry brought a few comments, though not as many as I would have hoped. Also, I wrote it 2 weeks ago. Hey, not everyone has something to say. Or maybe not many people are reading my stuff. I'm going to lean towards the former and plow ahead with part two. Now where was I?

N is for North By Northwest (1959)

While A Night at the Opera is a great comedy, as are most of the Marx Brothers films, North By Northwest is a combination of a bunch of genres: mystery, drama, and some wry Hitchcock-style humor well-delivered (as always) by Cary Grant. This is back when movie bad guys were more dangerous because of their intellect and James Mason is one of the best. And why not? He has a pre-Mission Impossible Martin Landau as a henchman.

O is for Ordinary People (1980)

I admit that I could think of too many "O" movies. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975) is certainly great but I'm drawn to the quiet anxiety of Ordinary People. A sad movie about a family trying to get past a couple of tragedies that happened about a year before the movie started, not ending on a completely low note but not very high either. This is also one of the rare times when the movie is on par with the book. Great casting, too, with Mary Tyler Moore playing completely against type as the mother trying desperately to make things normal again. It was also Timothy Hutton's screen debut and Robert Redford's directorial debut. But if it's a "hey look, it's that guy" experience you want, check out the early screen appearances in Cuckoo's Nest.

P is for The Producers (1968)

I debated this one for awhile. I could have gone with Philadelphia (1993) but I get angst watching it now because I have to wait too long for the denouement and it's hard watching Andy (Tom Hanks) go through all the hell he does until the victory at the end. And I really like "The Princess Bride." But I'm going with the early Mel Brooks comedy. You know the set up: a fading Broadway big shot of a producer realizes he can make more money with a flop than with a hit. Hilarity ensues. Great casting--Zero Mostel is a great sleazy scam artist. Gene Wilder is a great milquetoast. Then there was the Broadway play, which was good, and the movie, which wasn't. So I watch the original, just to cleanse my palette.

Q is for...

I can't think of one. Quiz Show was okay, I think. I don't remember. I fell asleep during The Queen. I think I liked Quantum of Solace. Any suggestions?

R is for Raising Arizona (1987)

I originally picked Rain Man (1988) but it was a little slow and Valeria Golino, while beautiful, was annoying. Raising Arizona is a great screwball comedy and Nicolas Cage was awesome. This is a movie I can watch over and over from any point. Great characters and a story that really doesn't have any slow parts. Nicolas Cage when he was still making good movies and Holly Hunter in what may be her only role where I don't want to put a bag over her head and suffocate her. Well, her characters. Not her.

S is for The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

This was the hardest letter to choose a movie from. Serpico (1973), Say Anything (1989), The Shining (1980), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Sixth Sense (1999).  All great flicks.  But how many movies are there where you can look at a buddy, say "oh man, Shawshank" and you'd both know what you were talking about.  This is also one of the flicks TBS plays to death but it's also one where I can pop in at any point any get sucked in.  I'm not even sure I've ever seen it on a screen bigger than my TV.  I know what you're thinking: you picked Shawshank?  Not Spinal Tap?  Hold that thought...

T is for This is Spinal Tap (1984)

No one ever says, "hey, wanna watch This is Spinal Tap?"  To most of the free world (and some of the non-free world), it's Spinal Tap.  It's really the first movie that was able to capture the deadpan style of humor that everyone was trying to copy since "Airplane!"  It's another one of the most quotable movies ever.  I was going to talk about what a great script it was but I read that most of it was ad libbed, which makes it that much more amazing.

U is for The Usual Suspects (1995)

You know what a great "U" movie was?  "Uncle Buck" (1989).  One of John Candy's best, I think. Comedy with heart--vintage John Hughes.  But The Usual Suspects was a really great mystery with a simple question: Who is Keyser Söze?  I was first drawn in by the title--a clear homage to "Casablanca" ("round up the usual suspects").  Then I was sucked in by all the hype.  I'm always one of the last to see a film the rest of the world has already seen.  A great ending I didn't see coming at all.  Unfortunately, movies like this or "The Sixth Sense" make it impossible to watch any other mystery because I've been trained to watch for any little clue and to suspect everyone.  "Shutter Island" (2010) could have been an awesome film.  Instead, it was just really good because I figured it out halfway through.

V is for Vertigo (1958)

Lots of people say "Psycho" (1960) is Hitchcock's best film.  It may be the most popular but Vertigo is the best. Or maybe it's "North by Northwest."  Anyway, Vertigo is a wonderfully tense drama with James Stewart cast a little against type (for me, anyway) as a bit of an anti-hero. Kim Novak is beautiful in a late-50s-hypercolorized way.  It's hard not to feel bad for Stewart at the end.  He fights so many demons and then...well.  It also had Barbara Bel Geddes in the only role I'd ever seen her in outside "Dallas."  I thought she was only Miss Ellie.

W is for When Harry Met Sally (1989) or West Side Story (1961)

I really couldn't choose a favorite for "W."  They're two completely different movies so it's not as if I'm comparing them.  But I really could go either way.  Wait, it just occurred to me...are these both chick flicks?

When Harry Met Sally was such a great story told over such a long period of time.  And who knew Billy Crystal could pull off a romantic comedy?  Maybe he got lucky.  I mean, there was also "Forget Paris" (1995). Know what I mean?  There was something about this movie that made me want to be in it--not as an actor, but just the whole thing with the lost acquaintance who becomes a part of your life many years later and you realize that the thing you're looking for has been right in front of you the whole time. Plus it was when I fell in love with Meg Ryan.  Don't tell her.  I don't think she knows.

West Side Story wasn't my first musical.  But it was the first one that didn't have a happy ending.  I hate happy endings, especially when they're choreographed to music.  West Side Story had memorable music, and updated Romeo and Juliet (1478?) story, and an ending so frustrating that when I watch the movie, I still think Tony's going to live.  He and Maria were so close to being happy together (although they probably would have divorced later on) but circumstances out of their control would keep them apart forever.  If the movie was made today, it would probably be 20 minutes long.  I mean, a gang fight with fists?  Come on, guns would be pulled and everyone would be shot Reservoir Dogs style.  Or at least sent into the future to learn how to live together.

X is for American History X (1998)

Yeah, I'm cheating a little.  But can you name any "X" movies besides "X-Men"?  American History X is a great little story that really doesn't have any wasted scenes.  Very tight.  Plus Edward Norton, who's basically great in anything he's in.  The black and white flashbacks are compelling as you watch Norton descend into overwhelming hatred as the leader of a white supremacist group.  Then prison shows him the hypocrisy of the whole movement. When he returns to his family (now in color, like Wizard of Oz!), he wants to fix everything he left behind but the world doesn't want to change.  The hardest thing about watching the movie is deciding what to think of Norton's character.  Do you hate him because he's a white supremacist?  But he wasn't always like that.  But he was such a dick in prison.  But then he realized he was a dick.  It's exhausting.

Y is for Young Frankenstein (1974)

This is a Mel Brooks masterpiece which really shouldn't have become a musical but no one asked my opinion.  I saw this when I was a kid and didn't get most of the jokes.  I got the "what knockers" joke and the whole "Puttin' on the Ritz" scene with the monster.  The rest was just waiting to see Marty Feldman on screen.  Mel Brooks tends to be guilty of pushing the jokes way too far to the point of predictability.  I saw "Robin Hood: Men In Tights" (1993) when it came out and I knew the punchlines before the actors said them.  But Young Frankenstein never crosses that line.  It was silly without being goofy slapstick.  It wasn't played for the jokes, whereas "Spaceballs" (1997) definitely was.

Z is for Zelig (1983)

"Z" is another letter I had trouble with but then I remembered Zelig.  When it came out, it was pretty groundbreaking.  Woody Allen managed to edit himself seamlessly into actual historic footage, which allowed him to play the chameleon who couldn't find his own identity so he adopted those of the people around him.  I don't recall Zelig getting the credit it deserved when "Forrest Gump" (1994) came out and did the same thing visually.  The thing that's hard to watch now is Woody Allen and Mia Farrow together.  It's okay in "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986) because they're not together.  They're divorced, ironically enough.

# is for 12 Angry Men (1957)

I wanted to squeeze in a number movie and this is the best of them.  A movie with no main star for the most part.  Yeah, Henry Fonda is the big name.  But watching it now, you recognize just about every one of the 12 jurors.  The story is so tight and moves so well that you forget 99% of the film takes place in that jury room.  You never learn anyone's name (until the very end, where you just get 2 of them) but you get a fantastic sense of each character and how they react when they're around stronger characters.  This was Sidney Lumet's masterpiece.  I read in his book "Making Movies" that the scenes all start wide, but gradually, the camera gets closer and closer until the viewer feels the tension in the room.  I didn't even notice that before I read the book, but I certainly felt it.

So that's the list from A-Z.  Sorry it took so long to finish.  I'm glad new letters weren't invented while you were waiting.

Friday, April 15, 2011

What's Your Favorite Movie? Part 1

I’ve seen this in a number of places—lists of some random guy’s favorite something or other—in numerical order, chronological order, whatever.  Movies are a popular subject and it’s pretty interesting to see which movies most people like.  I read one the other day by some guy who did an alphabetical list of his favorite foreign films.  Twenty-six movies I’d never heard of. 

So I’m asking myself: what kind of narcissist blogs a list of movies he likes?  I mean who cares, right?  Having said that, here is part 1 of my A to Z list of my favorite movies. 

Disclaimer: All movies are the original versions.  No remakes, no sequels, except where noted.  “The” doesn’t count as a movie that starts with “T.”  Numbers aren’t spelled out unless it’s how they appeared on the movie poster.

A is for Annie Hall (1977)

There are a lot of great movies that start with A, especially if you count the flicks that start with “A” or “An.”  American Graffiti is a great movie and you can’t go wrong with Airplane! or American Beauty. But Annie Hall is the best.  It’s not just because it won awards and it’s not just because it’s a Woody Allen film.  It’s just a great story with some great actors and some classic scenes.  Christopher Walken as the suicidal Duane Hall.  The anti-Semitic Grammy Hall (“Grammy?  What did you, grow up in a Norman Rockwell painting?”), and a really poignant ending that makes you want to watch from the beginning again.

B is for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

This was a tough one.  My first thought was  The Breakfast Club because I was the same age as the characters (thought not the actors) when it came out.  It spoke to me, as did all John Hughes films and I still watch it whenever it’s on. I also thought of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  This was almost my favorite—a great buddy film with two great actors and a fantastic script.  But the scene with the bicycle and the song knocked it out of first place for me.  The Best Years of Our Lives is a great story.  Three men returning home from the horrors of war, but they’re not as excited as they should be.  Reentering their old lives is actually harder than fighting an enemy shooting at you.  A little long, but not one slow moment.

C is for Casablanca (1942)

This was a no brainer.  I suppose Citizen Kane is the popular answer and Caddyshack is a classic.  But there really isn’t anything better than Casablanca. Bogart. Bergman.  A great love story that brings Bogart to drink (which is the Bogart version of tears).  A very tense, compelling story. And some of the most memorable movie lines of all time—except for “play it again, Sam.”  Never happened.  

And it was written by a Penn State grad!

D is for Double Indemnity (1944)

Diner, Dog Day Afternoon, Dr. Strangelove…all fantastic “D” movies.  But I love film noir, and Double Indemnity is one of the best.  It’s amazing how something as bland as insurance fraud can become filled with passion, murder, mystery, and some genuine, rapid-fire, film noir dialogue between Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis) and Fred MacMurray (Walter, pre “My Three Sons”):
Walter: You’ll be here too?
Phyllis: I guess so, I usually am.
Walter: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.
Walter: I wonder if you wonder.

Good stuff.  And it’s got Edward G!

E is for Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex* But Were Afraid To Ask (1972)

Not one of Woody Allen’s best but still pretty funny.  Great cameos from Burt Reynolds, Tony Randall, and Gene Wilder, and some funny scenes of Woody Allen being chased across a field by a giant breast, and a rabbi as a contestant on the game show “What’s My Perversion?” (he wants to have pork fed to him by a dominatrix).  In truth, I couldn’t think of any other “E” film I liked.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was good but I think I liked the concept of the story more than the film itself.  The Exorcist…yeah, I guess.  Tough letter.

F is for Forrest Gump (1994)

This wasn’t easy to pick since I also loved Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Four Weddings and A Funeral.  But I really loved Gump for the way it unapologetically travelled through time, putting Forrest in scenes of real history and making me question whether or not he was real or fictional. But on top of the visual effects was a terrific story of a truly innocent man going about his life with nothing but the kindness his mother taught him.  And he turns out to be a pretty successful man for that.

G is for The Graduate (1967)

Good lord, you're married
to Mel Brooks?
I liked The Great Escape. I really like Groundhog Day. I loved The Godfather.   But The Graduate ranks up there with the best of them.  A college graduate running from all the expectations people have of him, completely shattering whatever mold he’s been pushed into.  In many ways Benjamin Braddock is me, except for the affair with the older woman, the awesome red sports car, the fact that he’s played by Dustin Hoffman.  “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me…aren’t you?” is one of the most memorable movie lines…and scenes.

H is for His Girl Friday (1940)
This poster is for that movie?
Holy Misleading!

Watching this movie is exhausting.  Everything is fast about it—especially the dialogue.  It’s a really fun movie.  Even a little dark when the journalists care more about their story than the fact that an innocent man is going to get hung.  But Cary Grant is at his Cary Grant-iest.  The relationship between Grant and Russell is fantastic. 
Walter (Grant): There's been a lamp burning in the window for ya, honey... here (pats his lap)
Hildy (Russell): Oh, I jumped out that window a long time ago.

She hates him but can’t avoid his charm. No one can. And there’s a scene where Grant yells “get me Liebowitz” into the phone. That's great writing. 

I is for It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

I lost 8 grand and got away with it!
Hee haw indeed!
Hee haw! This is a tough letter.  So many movies start with “I” or “It” or “I’m.” But I didn’t have to think too long on this letter.  It’s A Wonderful Life may not be the best movie in the world, but this is a list of my favorites.  The story is a little trite, the scenes are a little corny, but I never miss a chance to watch it on TV.  In the days before NBC bought it, you could see the film literally dozens of times on dozens of channels during the holiday season.  That was part of the fun of it.  The ending bugs me a little (click here for a full explanation) and I don’t know who names their kid “Zuzu” but as Harry Bailey says at the end, George is “the richest man in town.”  Not richer than Sam Wainwright of course…

J is for Jaws (1975)

I was 6 the summer this came out so I didn’t see it in the theater.  But I knew the story.  And I truly had a fear of going too far out into the water.  It’s lost a little of its impact now that there have been so many documentaries about it and I know the shark didn’t work, it was named after Spielberg’s lawyer, etc.  It also took place on Amity Island which, to me, sounded like Amityville and that’s on Long Island and that’s where I grew up and…well you get the idea.

The Jerk was a close second place.  Classic Steve Martin.

K is for King Kong (1933)

Yes, I saw The King’s Speech and it was very good.  Would I see it again?  Maybe in a few years.  King Kong has held up for me not only because of the story, but because it’s like a little time capsule.  Blatant stereotypes verging on the offensive (the natives on the island, the Chinese cook…), great 1930s dialogue, including liberal use of the word “swell.”

           Carl Denham: [warning Jack about women] Some big, hardboiled egg  gets a look at a pretty face and bang, he cracks up and goes sappy!

L is for Life is Beautiful (1997)

This one came to me at the last second.  I was tempted to say The Lord of the Rings but backed off for the same reason I didn’t say Lawrence of Arabia—too epic.  Great films but they require a real time investment.  Life is Beautiful is amazing in that it was basically two distinct parts: the romance in the first half and the concentration camp story in the second half.  Roberto Benigni’s character sacrifices everything for his son, not only to keep him safe but also to keep him from getting too scared.  Heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.

M is for The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

I really liked Memento but had no idea what the hell was going on.  I liked the idea of a guy trying to solve a mystery when the mystery is himself.  But for true staying power, I chose The Manchurian Candidate.  I admit that like Memento, I had no idea what was going on.  Look at the top of the poster: If you come in five minutes after this picture begins, you won’t know what it’s all about.  I first saw this on TV and jumped in about 10 minutes after it started.  What’s with the garden party?  Wait, Koreans?  Weren’t they just at a garden party?  Once I got the whole premise, I was hooked.  Who knew Frank Sinatra could act?  Who knew Angela Lansbury could be such a bad ass?

Stay tuned for the 2nd half of the list tomorrow…or some time soon after that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Play Ball (right after these ceremonial announcements)

A brave version of "The Star Spangled Banner" crackled through the outfield speakers, signifying one thing: the next American Idol will not be from Montville Township. But it also signifies the official beginning of baseball season here in my own little corner of suburbia.

I don't know when Little League season became an occasion of pomp and pageantry. In the suburbia of my youth, Little League began when the first game was played. No big deal. Maybe it's a geographical thing. New Jersey has had teams in the Little League World Series. Growing up on Long Island, I'm not sure I ever heard of it. Everyone thought I was nuts when I questioned the need for a parade.

And after the last fire truck has passed and the last team wanders by, it's time for the opening ceremonies. It's basically a generic prayer for sportsmanship and good weather or something, followed by the thanking of the sponsors and the selling of all sorts of stuff to benefit the league. This "stuff" includes the snacks n stuff for sale at 5th Base. And with the beginning of baseball season comes the first request from the kids for food. 10:30 am and I'm buying fries for the boy.
Someone stole third base last season and they
still haven't solved the case.

And the prayer for good weather? There hasn't been one game played so far.