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Movies

Hello movie fans, I’m glad you’ve joined me for my ramblings on films I’ve seen. My musings will feature American and British films, with a few foreign films included in the two or three volumes I’ll eventually publish. I’ll start with a few of my favorite dramas then move on to comedies and later to epics.

So, what is my favorite movie? Hmmm. That’s not easy to answer. I love a few movies, yet enjoy many. Sometimes I recognize that a movie is well done, yet I find it unlikable. Raging Bull is a good example. It’s one of Scorsese’s best, but good grief, give me one character to like! Characters can be flawed, yet still appealing, as with Brando’s character in On the Waterfront. I suppose the best movies are like the best books—they have impact. We’ve all seen movies that were entertaining, but so forgettable that they’ve completely vacated any recess in our brains by the time we’ve made it to the theater parking lot. Then some movies creep under our skin and penetrate our minds for days. How about Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List for examples? I’ve seen both several times, and they still claw at my guts. Why do I watch such movies? Sometimes I just need something meaty—the same goes for books.

Most any list made by people “in the know” will include Citizen Kane (1941)near the top. Yes, it’s impressive that one guy, Orson Welles, took on many roles (producing, directing, acting, and probably completing most of the carpentry work), but others have done that since then. And all the revolutionary filming and lighting techniques were great for their day, but they seem archaic today. Shouldn’t the alleged “best” movie of all time be likable? Yes, it’s interesting that the story is told from multiple points of view, but I’d never name my sled Rosebud in tribute. So let’s proceed to some great stuff. First up, a few of my favorite films then I’ll move on to comedies.

Casablanca (1942). This treasure of Hollywood’s golden age takes us to North Africa (or at least the Warner studio back lot) for a World War II melodrama. I’ve seen the movie so many times I could recite the lines along with the characters if I wanted, but I don’t want to. It’s much better to let the two of the best ever—Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman—carry me along. As with every great movie, everything comes together—script, direction, acting, staging, costuming, cinematography—everything and everybody, right down to the gaffer and the best boy (the electrician and his top assistant, who can be female). The movie wasn’t even a big hit in its time (though it did win the Oscar for Best Picture), but it has endured. Consider that the movie started filming while Hitler was storming successfully through Europe and before the U.S. was officially involved in the war. Hence, the movie was filmed and released before anyone knew the outcome of World War II.

Though the film runs smoothly, flawlessly, the shooting was beset with anxiety since the screenwriters hadn’t completed the ending when the filming started. That meant the stars and even the director didn’t know how it would end until half of the filming was finished. Bergman didn’t know until the final scene if she would fly away with her patriotic leader husband or stay with her cynical love. A flashback to Paris before its Nazi occupation shouldn’t work, but it does. Anyway, Bogey is cool, Bergman is radiant, and the supporting cast is top-notch, notably Claude Rains and Peter Lorre, with line after line of memorable dialogue. If you’ve only seen it once—buy it. It’s timeless and newer versions overflow with extras. The 70th Anniversary Blu-ray version is chock full of goodies—a book profiling the film and its stars, a poster, and even a set of coasters for your drinks. Whoo-hoo! Really though, it’s a stunning, sharp picture that showcases technology’s best efforts. It’s one of America’s most beloved films—don’t miss it.

The Godfather (1972). Well, I won’t bore you with quotes we’ve all heard, but the movie possessed the amazing ability to make us root for bad guys. Director Francis Ford Coppola takes us to another world, another time, and we are sucked in, churned up, and robbed of all our morals. Bravo. The son of an aging mafia king reluctantly takes on his father’s role when the Family fails to support the plans of a rival mafia gang. The blood flies and the schemes begin. Meatballs, machine guns, cannoli, dead fish, mattresses, it’s all here in this clash of old world ways and new age methods.

It’s also the rare movie that is better than the book. I admit that I read the book sporadically at the age of 14 when I babysat for neighbors; so much of it went over my head. (I can only admit to such depravity because my parents are deceased, otherwise they would have felt like they had failed in my upbringing.) Anyway, the film made stars of James Caan and Al Pacino, and gave Marlon Brando a triumphant comeback. Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton also shine. Anyway, it’s great story-telling, great performances, and the ultimate glorification of The Family, even one steeped in corruption and blood. If you’ve missed it, you’ve missed a memorable chunk of American culture and possibly the greatest American film ever made.

The African Queen (1951).A stirring adventure film, an unlikely love affair results when a stiff, spinster missionary is thrown into close quarters with a rough steamer captain. Their tumultuous relationship, their attempt to avoid capture by the Germans, and their farfetched plan to destroy a warship make for compelling thrills and comedic moments. Finally on DVD, this Bogart-Hepburn classic, set during WWI, delivers great adventure, stirring performances (it was Bogart’s only Oscar win), and an amazing locale, which produced as many misadventures in filming as the story renders on the screen. Yes, they filmed in the deep of Africa, they used real leeches on poor Bogey (it disgusted him), Katharine Hepburn did have her own floating dressing boat for a few days until it proved impractical, and nearly all the cast became dreadfully sickened by polluted bottled water (skinny Kate Hepburn lost twenty pounds and some of the crew had to work lying down), except for Bogey and director John Huston, who both allegedly drank such a quantity of alcohol that no parasite could survive in their systems. Bogey and Kate the Great are two of my favorite actors (neither are great role models, but what the hell); both characters begin the movie with the friction only polar opposites can produce, then merge to allies then to lovers, mixing comedy and drama in their heroic yet nearly suicidal mission against the Germans. Great stuff.

We still have a few greats with us, but for me when Katharine Hepburn died in 2003, the golden age of Hollywood lost its luster. She’ll be showing up often in the movies I cover, as will Bogart (especially in volume two’s Film Noir section).

Gone with the Wind (1939). It’s sweeping, it’s intimate, it’s set during the American Civil War. Though it glosses over the evil of slavery and brings into question the “political meetings” of the post-war story, namely, were Frank and Ashley in the KKK?—it is film-making at its best. Millions would argue it is the last word in film. It’s certainly tops at the box office. Oh, Avatar has made the most money, but in terms of putting bodies in seats, GWTW is way out in front. Theater attendance for Avatar ranks about 33 or so, a few notches ahead of Pinocchio.

In case you are wondering, here are the top ten movies for attendance: GWTW, Star Wars, The Sound of Music, E.T., The Ten Commandments, Titanic, Jaws, Doctor Zhivago, The Exorcist, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

But back to Scarlett and Rhett, indelible characters who propel the film forward and into our cultural history: rotten, self-centered, noble, persevering, and charismatic, they are two hell-raisers in a match made in Hollywood heaven (though first in Margaret Mitchell’s novel). Yet I admit to a preference for the first two-thirds of the movie (mostly directed by George Cukor) that takes us through the antebellum southern beginnings and into the tumult of the war. Hattie McDaniel, “Mammie,” won the first Oscar for an African American (Best Supporting Actress), though she was seated at the back of the theater, with the other blacks. Whereas Scarlett is the heart of the story, I would argue that Mammie is the good soul of the story—too happy, yes, but feisty as hell, yet loyal and good-hearted. She is Melanie’s ally and counterpart.

By the way, Olivia de Havilland, sweet Melanie, is still alive and about 1001 years old. If you want to see her in a role that is, well, not so sweet, try Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) with Betty Davis. She can’t help but seem so nice…

Gone with the Wind will still be a great movie in fifty years. It over-romanticizes the antebellum South and depicts blacks as happy slaves (yeah, right—how would you like to be a slave?) Still, this monumental film, the standard for popular epic cinema, survives its flaws. Buy it.

Lord of the Rings (2001-2003). First, I will make few comments on the novel—for it was written as a single novel with Book One through Four. It was later organized into a trilogy of novels, linked to the Hobbit (which was published in 1937). Author J.R.R. Tolkien emphatically states that though LOTR was written during World War II, it is in no way an allegory to that war, which broke out soon after he began writing it. In fact, the experiences of England during World War I probably influenced the novel to a greater extent. The novel first took form in 1936 but was not completed until 1949. From these wars come the significant, perhaps monumental, themes of good and evil. Tolkien doesn’t paint a picture with gray, ambiguous colors—he casts every significant character as good or bad, with the exception of Gollum, who has a split personality and isn’t really human. Tolkien makes it easy for his readers, and later his movie audience, to root for the good guys. The story is ripe with entertaining characters and thrilling adventures. The tale stresses the decisions, the alliances, and the sacrifices the characters make.

Transforming the film into cinematic form took a Herculean effort, led by director Peter Jackson. With the help of great acting, a terrific screenplay, and some amazing CGI, he enlivened the story. Yes, plot lines were altered—the battle at Helm’s Deep from the second novel evolved from a lesser part of Book Two into the centerpiece of the second movie, The Twin Towers. And Shelob was moved to the third movie, but so what? The movie captures the story in the way that I think Tolkien envisioned it, though he could not have predicted the amazing things modern technology could produce. I’m sure the beneficiaries of his estate are smiling all the way to the bank.

Anyway, LOTR gives us fantasy that feels real. The dazzling CGI provides a necessary component of the film for the movie could not have been made without creative computer work. Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog or the final battles in Return of the King couldn’t have been made with Star Wars technology. As with all great films, everything comes together, starting with a great story. And in this film, great CGI and ton of money from the New Line films was needed, along with superior direction, production, and acting. At its core, the story and film present hope, friendship, goodness, honor, and courage in the face of overwhelming evil. The three movies earned a total of 17 Oscars, including best picture for Return of the King.

To be honest, I think the Shire would suit me just fine. Bag End looks especially comfy, though it wouldn’t work well for my son or tall husband. Still, I would love a house where every chair I sat in allowed my feet to touch the floor. Though, I would prefer to do without the hairy feet or pointy ears. I guess I better stay where I’m at, cherishing my footstools.

Best book-movie combinations: Now that I’ve written about a few of my favorite movies, I’ll proceed to two classic books that became classic movies. Certainly, one of the best adaptations of a book into a movie is To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). First published in 1961, the story tells of childhood in the Deep South during the Depression and the small-town bigotry that teaches the children the painful lessons of moral courage, embodied by their attorney father, who defends a falsely-accused black man. The first printing totaled a mere five thousand copies; however, it exploded into a phenomenon, selling tens of millions of copies to date. The book earned author Harper Lee a Pulitzer Prize. She heartily endorsed Gregory Peck (he won his only Oscar for the role) to represent the father. She said of the film that “it has a life of its own as a work of art.” I love this movie (and the book) for its great mixture of amusing childhood details and powerful social issues.

Another great movie-book combination is The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Set during the Oklahoma dust bowl years in the 1930s, the Joad family, driven off their land by weather and greed of the banking industry, heads to California in search of work. This gripping tale of their onerous and perilous journey leads to disillusionment and even more difficulty upon their arrival. Led by a potent and soulful turn by Henry Fonda, the movie and book leave you so wrapped up in the family that when it ends you feel a sense of concern for what happens next to the characters. This is grand, strong stuff created by Nobel prize-winner John Steinbeck, who rode along with people who actually made this arduous trek to gather information and inspiration for his story.

Many, perhaps most, great movies derive from great books, with Casablanca as a noteworthy exception. Most people would argue that the book is always better than the movie, and perhaps that is generally true. Sometimes, movies fail to capture the magic, the special quality that made a book great. Two recent examples would include The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (Sophie Okonedo’s performance is the highlight of the film) and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I can’t say what would have made those movies better. Not every good book can successfully become cinematic. Then again, a book may spawn two fine movies, as with True Grit. The Help by Kathryn Stockett is a recent and excellent movie adaptation. I think with every great movie it starts with the words on the page, often in a book, and certainly in the screenplay.

Favorite comedies:

The Mel Brook’s horror spoof, Young Frankenstein (1974), is a quirky, clever twist to Mary Shelley’s decidedly serious novel, Frankenstein. I’ve watched this movie many times and I still laugh at the humor, sometimes before the joke comes. The movie possesses a great script, a rare Oscar nod for comedic writing by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, and a hilarious cast led by Gene Wilder that includes Teri Garr, Peter Boyle, goofy Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Gene Hackman, and the wonderful Madeline Kahn. And I’ll add a special homage to Kenneth Mars (the policeman), who died in 2011. Let’s all have some sponge cake and wine in his memory.

It amazes me how comedy writers know some things will be very funny, such as the “Put-the-candle-back!” conversation, when it may not look humorous on the written page. Said the right way (substitute a word or two) and you can use this phrase at home for fun and pleasure, as in “put the Pop Tarts back.” Your kids won’t understand the silliness, but you’ll be amused and what’s more important than that?  By the way, the movie was filmed in the same castle and used the same lab equipment as the 1931 classic by director James Whale. Thus, in its own zany way, it pays homage to the original movie, yet retains its own distinctiveness. Bye now, I’m going to make espresso.

The following comedies are favorites of mine, although they are in no particular order. British comedies will be handled later in this volume.

Tootsie (1982). A stubborn and antagonistic actor (Dustin Hoffman)  impersonates a woman on a soap opera then learns to be better person as a result, but not without a slew of droll complications and subplots. The cast is excellent, including Bill Murray, whose dead-pan delivery (“Don’t play hard to get”) provide laugh-out-loud moments. Larry Gelbart (MASH) was a co-writer. It’s a well-structured romp with Oscar nods for Hoffman, Teri Garr, and Jessica Lange (she won); yet great acting can’t make a movie great unless you start from a superior source—the screenplay. Both the movie and the script gained Oscar nominations. It faced a tall task in the Best Picture category, competing with E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Gandhi (which won).

Moonstruck (1987). My daughter and I can carry on entire conversations in Moonstruck-speak, without ever slapping each other or drinking whiskey. Featuring the breakfast from hell that turns into familial bliss, this movie is a must. A tribute to the people of New York’s Italian quarter, we get a view of these characters as they trudge, struggle, love, and charge through life. Cher is perfect, Nicolas Cage is at his melodramatic peak, and the supporting cast is chock full of the finest at their best. In a rare win for a comedy, John Patrick Shanley took home the Oscar for his screenplay. Great performances, yes, but again, it all starts with the words on the page. Oscars for Cher and Olympia Dukakis (that’s hard to spell late at night, it took me three tries), and great direction by Norman Jewison (you may know him as the director of In the Heat of the Night and Fiddler on the Roof), this is fun stuff. The late Vincent Gardenia amuses us as the cranky, womanizing father of Cher. Watch for table pounding and “I’m confused!” Read all the bad news in your newspaper or on your tablet then watch this. You’ll feel better.

Juno (2007). Oscar winner Diablo Cody dazzles us with dialogue that’s off-the-wall, on-the-mark, and never predictable. The story deals with a high school junior faced with an unwanted pregnancy, confused feelings for the father (her best friend), and the impulsive selection of adoptive parents, whose marriage unravels. Ellen Page, “The Tiny Canadian” is so short (okay, she’s my height), and likable in her quirky, whip-smart role. Her character provides an enjoyable mixture of naiveté and maturity. Michael Cera, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Thurby, and Allison Janney are excellent in supporting roles. I thought Ellen Page’s inclusion in the mind-bender, Inception, was great casting as a young brainiac who becomes Leonardo DiCaprio’s confidante. She’s a rising talent. Meanwhile, I’m waiting for Diablo Cody’s next comedy.

The Philadelphia Story (1940). Forget that Kate Hepburn holds the ongoing record for acting Oscars at four; this is the movie that saved her career. Branded as headstrong for a 1930s woman (and “Hollywood poison,” according to the tabloids), Hepburn took on a role that mocked her, yet made her more human, more approachable for American audiences of the times. Modern actresses owe a great debt to her pioneering legacy.

Anyway, enjoy a clever, sophisticated slapstick rollick with crackling dialogue from its charismatic trio—Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart (who won an Oscar for his role). Too bad real drunks aren’t as charming and humorous as a sober Jimmy Stewart playing a drunk. Multiple viewings will provide you with a host of fun lines to amuse you and understanding loved ones. And yes, an Oscar nod and win for screenwriter, Donald Ogden Stewart. Ruth Hussy and a supporting cast shine. The plot, you ask? Does it matter? This is one of Hollywood’s enduring comedies full of star power. Okay, Cary Grant tries to woo his former wife, Hepburn, on the eve of her second wedding. Stewart and Hussey are reporters in tow, meant to rouse havoc. But everything gets stirred, shaken, and taken for a ride—to our delight. Add this timeless farce to your collection.

Many people consider the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy to be one of the great comedic duos. And I will agree that their movies together of the 1940s and early 1950s are funny, namely, Adam’s Rib, Woman of the Year, and Pat and Mike. However, battle of the sexes movies, books, contests, whatever annoy and bore me. Maybe it’s because I was close to my father and I grew up with two older brothers; therefore, I don’t believe in that crap about men and women being from different planets. I’d rather talk sports with a guy than draperies with a woman. Accordingly, the Spencer-Hepburn movies appear dated, though certainly worth watching.

Now if you want vintage Hollywood fun, try Holiday(1938) with Hepburn and Grant and Lew Ayres (from All Quiet on the Western Front), or the screwball classic, Bringing Up Baby (1938) with Hepburn, Grant, and a leopard named “Baby.” This movie is not only funny, it also made two of Hollywood’s most graceful actors—Hepburn, the athlete, and Grant, the former acrobat—look clumsy, an amazing feat. Now, for those of you women who have never seen Cary Grant in a tuxedo, trust me, you haven’t lived. To test my statement, check out To Catch a Thief (1954), probably the only romantic comedy Alfred Hitchcock ever made (okay, there’s plenty of suspense too). Men, don’t despair because this movie gives you the easy-on-the-eyes Grace Kelly at her elegant best (not long before she ran off and became a princess). And if you’re on a Cary Grant roll, sample Father Goose (1964), a romantic comedy-adventure set during World War II in the Pacific, with Grant as a boozy slob  and Leslie Caron as a prim school teacher abandoned on an island with seven young, mischievous girls while Japanese fighter jets buzz overhead. It won the Oscar for best screenplay, always a good sign for a movie. And, of course, you must see His Girl Friday (1940), with Grant and Rosalind Russell. Just be warned—this movie is not and cannot be subtitled. The dialogue fires off at machine-gun pace. Subtitles would not only cover the entire screen, but it could not possibly be read, if needed, by anyone but a speed-reader before the next frame hit. You barely have time to laugh before next funny line hits. Just watch it with your finger on the pause button. Better yet, watch it twice. And for a strong dose of frantic lunacy, watch Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), featuring a hilarious over-the-top performance by Cary Grant, the sole sane person in a oddball group that includes a scary brother and two lovable aunts who find nothing wrong with murder.

Airplane (1980). This gag-a-minute, silly movie mocks the disaster movies of the 1970s as it insults every group possible in its hilarious, over-the-top manner. What other movie gives you fighting Girl Scouts; Ethel Merman; Tupperware in the jungle; an unplugged IV with a girl in pain that we unabashedly laugh at; an air traffic supervisor who picked the wrong week for everything; a goofy, deranged, air traffic controller named Johnny who should be bound in a strait jacket and hauled away (though his silly lines provide family fun if you have an appropriately goofy family as I do); an unusual drinking problem; Leslie Nielsen playing it straight; and a host of loopy lines that would have amused Ebenezer Scrooge? This movie ranks high in the “just for fun” category I created mere moments ago. It’s a great reminder that once comedy didn’t rely on toilet humor and stupid males.

A pair of charming, family-friendly movies derives from Neil Simon plays. In The Odd Couple (1968), cranky, slovenly Walter Matthau and neurotic, fastidious Jack Lemmon provides a laugh-fest when the men try to share the same apartment. This is a hilarious lesson on the need to choose one’s roommate carefully and why one should not clear one’s sinuses in public. I advise you not to practice the latter at home—it will scare your pets and convince loved ones to delete you from their wills. Just watch and enjoy a great comedic duo and a sweaty, but effective cast. Just remember to duck if anyone throws spaghetti. (Lemmon and Matthau team up again in Grumpy Old Men from 1993.)

Another movie from the master of one-liners, Neil Simon, is Barefoot in the Park (1967). Teamed with Jane Fonda, it’s Robert Redford’s leading-man debut. You may have heard of him; if you are a female, you’ve probably swooned over him. (By the way, he’s really a redhead.) It’s the story of the sparkle rubbing off honeymooners, and the mother, Mildred Natwick (she gets the best lines and ekes every ounce of fun out of them), and the eccentric neighbor, Charles Boyer, at hand to first complicate then steady the rocky, yet passionate relationship of the young lovers. Fonda is ditzy, Redford is stuffy, yet the pair is likable, and the story is predictable, but oh, so delightful. It makes most modern romantic comedies look lame. Shama, shama.

Yes, I must include Woody Allen in any discussion of American comedies. My favorites are Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and HerSistersandBullets OverBroadway. In 2008, he gave us Vicky Christina Barcelona, as much a drama as a comedy, and a good movie until the moment Penelope Cruz arrived; then it became something special. She gave the movie a hit of adrenaline that carried though the rest of the movie. Her performance as a ball of fire was awarded with an Oscar.

It makes me acknowledge the tremendous impact a supporting character can produce in a movie. Remember Renee Zellweger as Ruby Thewes in Cold Mountain or Hugh Griffith as the sheik in Ben Hur or Juliet Binoche in The English Patient or Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in The Fighter? And who can forget Heath Ledger’s spell-binding performance in the Dark Knight? Those were great supporting roles that made those movies better (and the actors all won Oscars). Okay, none of these films are comedies—I  reserve the right to veer off the path. Then again, in the Fighter, the Mom and the sisters all decide to go over to Charlene’s house to confront her. I laughed so hard when those seven sisters poured out of the car (I cringed too). Amy Adams, in another excellent performance, shed her Enchanted  persona then proceeded to pummel one of the sisters (yes, the former ballerina had to take a few lessons on how to punch). So even heavy dramas can have their lighter moments. Remember Kathy Bates in About Schmidt? She turned that movie upside down. All right, back on course.

Disney/Pixar. Even in the realm of supposedly “kids” movies, it is still all about the quality of storytelling. Truly, Snow White and the SevenDwarfs (1937)started it all and it deserves its place in movie history. Still, the movie gets bogged-down by scenes meant to amuse children, such as the never-ending antics of the dwarfs. Nonetheless, it is the template to judge all subsequent animation.

Now, I must explain the reason for including this category when most adults may have overlooked it. I watch Disney movies every day of my life. Not by choice, mind you, but by necessity. I have an autistic son who is 21 going on 2 maybe 3 years, which I address in my Hey Joood blog. He loves these movies. I bet I’ve seen 101 Dalmatians more times than anyone who originally worked on that movie. I oblige his whims because I’m not really watching them with him, I’m reading or doing laundry or proofreading my writing. I oblige him his movies that relax him after his vocational workshop; obviously, I need to do what is right by him.

Now that you understand why I’ve seen some Disney movies 40 or 50 times, I will say again, the story is the key; furthermore, great villains make for great movies in any genre. So, let’s start with the best of the classics (and by “best” I mean movies that are so well told they appeal to people of all ages and survive the test of time). Let’s start with Bambi from 1942. You can judge this movie as you would any comedy—does it have a compelling story? Does it present memorable characters? Does it make us laugh? The answer is yes, on all accounts. The villain, of course, is Man, the hunter and careless intruder, the force that gives us the unforgettable aspect of tragedy. The emotional impact of the death of Bambi’s mother traumatized generations. Its quaint, likable qualities will endure forever, especially since Disney will eventually convert all of their great movies to the more durable Blu-ray format.

A family favorite, Jungle Book (1957), was our first VHS movie for my infant daughter. She never cared that it strayed far from anything Rudyard Kipling ever imagined. (In fact, Walt Disney specifically forbade his story team and animators from reading the book.) It is great fun, with engaging characters, lots of laughs, a compelling plot, and toe-tapping jazz, with a host of excellent voices to back the characters on screen—Sebastian Cabot, Phil Harris, Scatman Carruthers, Bruce Reitherman, and George Sanders. This is fun stuff—no children are required. Honestly, it’s more fun than most modern romantic comedies.

Of course, we are blessed us with The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh. With these three stories the English author, A.A. Milne, deserves the credit, not Walt Disney. One of the stories, “A Blustery Day,” won the Oscar in 1968 for Best Cartoon Short Subject. Quaint, amusing, enduring, this is family fun. Other attempts at Pooh stories haven’t fared as well, though Pooh’s Heffalump Movie has the feel of the classic stories. And I know you’re wondering, so I’ll confirm that Winnie-the-Pooh works as a fine relaxant for kids and teens with “issues” akin to my son’s.   

Truly, other classics are beloved by millions, but I thought Pinocchio was demented; and I have never been a fan of Alice in Wonderland. Sleeping Beauty possesses gorgeous artistry, but it’s for the kiddies. Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 gives us wonderful music, though the former displays some weird images; the latter is more palatable to a modern audience and earns high marks for featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. To digress, I love my Beethoven and my Mozart; yet it all started with Bach, but for me he’s a bit heavy on the harpsichord. (If you want an informative and entertaining handling of those masters, read Bach, Beethoven and the Boys—just don’t skip the droll footnotes by author David W. Barber.) Of the early animated Disney flicks, the most disappointing effort is Cinderella. To put it simply: great concept, lousy execution. Singing mice? Annoying. Haughty step-sister singing off key? Doubly annoying. Stupid antics with a cat and some mice? Intolerable. The character of Cinderella may be the most famous fictional character in all of entertainment (next to Romeo and Juliet). Modern sports teams often earn the moniker of the Cinderella team, the surprising, feel-good winner. This DVD has been in hiding at my house for years. If you want a fine version of the story, watch Ever After (1997), with Drew Barrymore and Angelica Huston. Also, 101 Dalmatiansis one the better of the older films. Glenn Close gives a thrilling performance as the evil Cruella DeVil in the live-action film.

For more modern fare, the string of strong Disney successes started with The Little Mermaid in 1989. Like every other adapted Disney story, it strays far from the original source. Two years later, Disney struck gold with Beauty and the Beast, which was nominated for an Oscar (back when only five films were nominated). As much a drama as a comedy, it features great storytelling and strong characters–likewise for the Lion King. A funny Aladdin features Robin Williams at his madcap best. Both Pocahontas (a pro-Native American version of the American history), and Mulan (the Chinese tale of a female warrior) continued Disney’s successes. Lilo and Stitch is a particularly funny tale with undertones of severe family tragedy and overtones of Elvis.

Even though Disney slaughters Victor Hugo’s storyline, The Hunchback of Notre Dame  is excellent, though the darkest of the Disney movies. Judge Frollo (Tony Jay), is actually a priest fascinated by witchcraft in the novel. This is probably the most underrated of the modern Disney movies. (It probably scared the kids, which means adults will like it more.) And I’ll pay homage to two great villains—George C. Scott as the sadistic poacher in Rescuers Down Under and Pat Carroll as Ursula the Sea Witch in Little Mermaid. Finally,The Princess and the Frog from 2009, rates as one of Disney’s best. It combines a compelling story, excellent animation, fine characterization, frequent laughs, great music, and the historically-correct racism and superstition of old-time New Orleans.

Disney studios created a number of endearing live-action films, such as Old Yeller and Swiss Family Robinson, both featuring the wonderful Dorothy McGuire, though I’d classify neither as comedies. Enchanted spoofs Disney fairy tales, yet charms us with engaging characters, laughs, thrills, and the delightful Amy Adams, who unknowingly creates an enemy in her witchy future mother-in-law, Susan Sarandon and her sidekick, Timothy Spall. The original Parent Trap benefits from performances by Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara (one of my favorite actresses, still alive at 167 years); however, I think Lindsey Lohan’s performance is the stronger of the two kids (Hayley Mills). This late 1990s version is fun but has the taint of tragedy given the death of Natasha Richardson and the demise of Lindsey Lohan.

It’s a shame so many parents stop watching Disney and especially Pixar movies just because their kids have grown up. Well, here’s a secret—I think Pixar actually makes their movies for adults. Ever seen the first eleven minutes of UP? That’s not kiddie stuff. As adults we know about loss, pain, and longing—so if the ending scene of Toy Story 3 doesn’t touch you, then you have no soul. Finding Nemo works for several reasons, but we wouldn’t become emotionally vested without it’s undertone of fear and heartache. These movies win Oscars for Best Animated Feature, but they also get nominated for Best Original Screenplay again and again. Pixar has earned about eleventy billion dollars worldwide and slew of awards for the eleven movies they’ve released. If you haven’t seen Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and Cars, then you are missing great cinema. It all started with Toy Story in 1995, and each Toy Story sequel is better than the original. How often have you seen a sequel that’s better than the original story? And then we have Wall-E. Despite the fact that it has five or six words (if you count “ta da”) in the first third of the movie, it was nominated for its screenplay. Though it contains a strong environmental message and a man against machine theme, it’s a wonderful love story between a junky but lovable everyman-robot and sleek female robot. Funny and touching, these robots show more heart than most romance stories could ever hope to achieve. Forget that it’s animated; this is simply one of the best movies of the last decade or more.

Brave (2012). This is a story of a headstrong young woman who rebels against her duties as a princess in medieval Scotland. Yes, this movie emphasizes a female hero; yes, the CGI is fantastic; yes, it features dirty, hairy people—but at its core, it’s all about good storytelling. You can rely on Pixar to deliver a well-told tale, even if they need to dump one director for another, as they did here and have done before. But we shouldn’t worry about that; instead, we should just enjoy a story packed with adventure, action, humor, and the important lesson—before you purchase a spell from a witch who carves bears into wood, understand exactly what you’re buying. Yeah, I know, you’ve seen that storyline a million times, but this time it’s loaded with lots of fun Scottish lingo, like “gammy” (useless), “scaffy” (something unpleasant to look at), “collywobbles” (something you don’t want your stomach to get), “gob” (face), and other words like “manky” and “guddled” your American English dictionary won’t define. I may never know what a “tumshie” is, but I’m quite sure it’s not a compliment. And there’s just no way to overuse a fun word like “kerfuffle” (a commotion); it’s one of my favorite words, along with besmirch, dither, pogonip, and fribble. In this Oscar winner, look for bears, a silly bird call, mischievous triplets, lots of red hair, kilts, and flying arrows. Enjoy.

Quality animated films not made by Disney or Pixar include Happy Feet (2006), which features penguins, an environmental message, and the voice talents of many (but special recognition goes to Britney Murphy, the voice of Gloria, who died at the young age of 32); the extremely popular Shrek, which was great fun, but I lost interest after the first movie; and Prince of Egypt (1998), which is definitely not a comedy, but not only gives us the voice talents of Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Val Kilmer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Helen Mirren, Danny Glover, and Patrick Stewart, it provides a much more historically accurate account of the Exodus than Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. (Even the Hebraic writing on the stone tablets depicting the Ten Commandments at the end of the movie was historically accurate.) Forget that it’s animated, this is a fine, compelling movie—kids are not required for viewing it.

And thanks to my niece Pami, I’ve discovered the excellent Japanese anime films of Hayao Miyazaki, including Princess Mononoke from 1997, a compelling animated epic (rated PG-13) entangling humans, animals, nature, industry, demons, and spirits. It lacks the polish of Disney, but more than makes up for it with a riveting, complex story. Now that I’ve seen the trippy Spirited Away (2001) and the delightful Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), my favorite, I’ll advise that Hayao Miyazaki is a distinct and wonderful storyteller. Send the kids out to play so you can fully enjoy these fantastic flicks.

A series of short movies was created from the books by Beatrix Potter. The animated stories, with some live action to frame the stories as letters to children, deliver charm, chuckles, memorable characters, and surprisingly dark undertones at times. And let’s not forget Babe, from 1995, a clever, sweet, amusing celebration of Australian farm life that received a Best Picture nomination. I even enjoyed the singing mice, trust me, I rarely appreciate singing rodents. This feel-good movie oozes charm. Watch it, or watch it again. A family favorite of ours is the clay-mation Wallace and Gromit movie The Curse of the Were-Rabbit(2006). It’s silly, clever, quirky and features the voice talents of Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter—serious actors having fun being zany. Again, children are not required for viewing this film.

Another series, though live action, is the hilarious Muppet Movies from the 1990s, particularly Muppet Treasure Island, featuring Tim Curry and the whole gang of Muppets, based on the Robert Louis Stevenson story; Muppets in Space, emphasizing Gonzo, with the talents of Jeffrey Tambor and Andie McDowell; and perhaps the best of all the Muppet movies, Muppet Christmas Carol, highlighted by an excellent performance by Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge. Of course, it was an excellent portrayal—have you ever seen Michael Caine give a bad performance in the zillion movies (and that’s a precise figure) in which he has been involved? Never. I will say the Brit does stretch it a bit in Second Hand Lions (2003), a fun, family film featuring Mr. Caine not quite mastering a southern drawl (but still charming as the archetypical, genial uncle with a shotgun), a convincing Robert Duvall, and a fine performance by Haley Joel Osment.

I know this diverts from comedies a bit (this is my book so I can write whatever I want) but a few other good family movies include:

Little Women, any of the four film versions, especially the 1994 flick with Winona Ryder and Christian Bale; The Secret of Roan Inish (1993), an engaging Irish tale of a brave young girl in search of her brother; The Princess Bride (1987), an enjoyable, swashbuckling, fairly-tale adventure; and Hugo (2011), Martin Scorsese creates storytelling and visual magic in this period tale of an orphan boy living in the Paris train station.

Okay, back to live-action comedy. Ethan and Joel Coen gave us two quirky, yet diverse comedies. In Fargo (1996), this mesmerizing black comedy featuring Frances McDormand, they make us laugh at things that are, in fact, tragic (think of shower curtains and wood-chippers). In the quirky Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), feel free to laugh long and hard at all its “startlements,” and do abstain from a “R-U-N-N O-F-T” before you get to see some grand performances by fast-talking George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro, Holly Hunter, and John Goodman.

As much a musical and an adventure flick, the Wizard of Oz (1939) delivers plenty of laughs. To “speak in the vernacular of the peasantry,” this was big stuff when I was a kid. Though not a huge hit when it initially hit the theaters, in the 1950s it became a fixture on TV every winter. It developed into quite the event for my brothers and sisters in the 1960s as each year we debated which was scarier—the Wicked Witch of the West or those creepy flying monkeys. (As toddlers, my kids ran behind the furniture whenever the witch showed up, so I know their votes.) To the world it was the grand introduction of Judy Garland, whose wide-eyed innocent, Dorothy, charmed millions. The wistful song, “Over the Rainbow,” will remain a classic for generations to come. The many characters are a memorable tangle of dual personalities, complete with “the horse of a different color.” We are never supposed to wonder why anyone would want to leave the wonders of Oz for the sepia dust bowl of the Midwest. It’s a dream, remember? Like so many Hollywood movies, we’re not supposed to think, we’re just supposed to follow blissfully along with the story. And so we still do at my house.

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2003). To start, those of you who consider yourselves Seuss purists should know that Dr. Seuss’ widow, Mrs. Geisel, authorized both the script and the movie. Therefore, it’s okay for you to admit this is creative, wacky, quality stuff. So you purists need to see this movie twice—once to acknowledge the discrepancy between this movie and the book and the original 1960s animated version, then twice to fully appreciate the wit and charm of this film. Although the writers created a great deal of back story, the warning remains against extreme commercialism of the holy season. Enjoy Jim Carrey at his zany best. After all, it’s “joyful and triumphant.” This is not a Christmas movie we tuck away for December—we enjoy it whenever we can. I hope you do, too.

Ranked alongside the Hollywood’s greats of the 1930s and 40s, is the divine Audrey Hepburn. Though her movies generally blended drama with comedy, she became the world’s delightful discovery in 1953 with her first starring role opposite a young Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, where she plays a runaway princess seeking life and freedom in Rome. It was her first and only Oscar win. Her success continued with Sabrina (1954), a funny, touching film with a top-notch cast including Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), a quirky, funny, sad, yet ultimately redemptive story, Hepburn plays the “phony” ingénue, a toned-down call girl, in a memorable film from 1961, with the late Patricia Neal. For a wacky evening at home, I recommend How to Steal a Million (1966). Here Hepburn is teamed with one of the great ones, Peter O’Toole, as they try to steal a statue from a museum to prevent the discovery that it is actually a forgery made by her grandfather, played by the always-amusing, Hugh Griffith. This film glows with the charisma of its stars. Classy, chic, unforgettable, and a great humanitarian, Audrey Hepburn died in 1993.

For modern romantic comedies, the best ones probably rely on Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant, Sandra Bullock, or Meg Ryan. When Harry Met Sally… (1989) is one of the great ones (it definitely does not deserve an ‘R’ rating based on the more recent ratings system). Remember “I’ll have what she’s having?” Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal fit perfectly in their roles. Good stuff, indeed. The script is a classic from the late, great Nora Ephron on friendship and courtship.

An honor roll of other American comedies must include most anything by James L. Brooks, including Broadcast News (1987), with Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, and William Hurt, set in the hectic, competitive world of TV journalism; and  As Good As It Gets (1997), with Oscar wins for Jack Nicholson (his third) and Helen Hunt, involving a cranky romance novelist with obsessive-compulsive disorder and a good-hearted, overwrought waitress.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006), features the offbeat, endearing adventures of a stressed family on a road trip in a troublesome VW van. Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (a win for Michael Arndt), and acting nods for Abigail Breslin, and Alan Arkin (he won).

Sideways (2004), director Alexander Payne delivers a comedic masterpiece about two men in mid-life crisis mode who take a road trip to California wine country. Witty, intelligent, off-beat, and touching, this my favorite flick from this writer-director, a fellow Nebraskan, who won an Oscar for the screenplay along with his co-writer, Jim Taylor.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006), gives us some nobody named Meryl Streep (a three-time Oscar winner), Anne Hathaway, and introduces us to the talented Emily Blunt. A snappy script takes us into the high-stress world of a New York fashion magazine, its imperious editor, and the minions she controls.

The Graduate (1967). In a witty, pop-cultural achievement, Dustin Hoffman plays a college graduate confused by the fog of suburban materialism. Seduced by a boozy housewife played to perfection by the late Anne Bancroft, he then falls for her daughter, adding irony to absurdity to a classic piece of Americana.

Ninotchka (1939).If you’ve never seen the incomparable Greta Garbo—this is your chance. In a rare comedy, Garbo plays a loyal Soviet Communist in 1920s Paris on a mission with three oafish bureaucrats, side-tracked by love. This is Garbo at her best and in her last great role.

Bull Durham (1988), delivers a story about minor-league baseball and big-league life. Written and directed by Ron Shelton based on his own experiences, this witty, sexy, sometimes raunchy tale sizzles with the performances of Susan Sarandon, Kevin Costner, and Tim Robbins.

Fun recent movies include RED (2010), in which even the explosions are funny. There’s just something wacky about Helen Mirren (from the Queen) toting an Uzi in her dining room. Also, once you get past the hide-your-eyes gore, Zombieland  (2009), is quite funny, even though I generally avoid horror flicks. I must say, Woody Harrelson has come a long way since Cheers. (He was excellent in the Messenger.) It also features two other rising stars, Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone, along with the veteran, Abigail Breslin (okay, she’s only a teenager, but she has an Oscar nom and has worked in a slew of movies). Bill Murray provides a blast of fun.

Other American comedies include anything and everything by the Marx Brothers; Dr. Strangelove… (1964); A Fish Called Wanda (1988); It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963); Cat Ballou (1965); Arthur (1981); City Slickers (1991); Miss Congeniality (2000); Pretty Woman (1990); and Road to Morocco (1942). And I must mention Amelie (2001), a quirky, yet charming French gem with Audrey Tautou.

 

British Comedies: I have a confession. My American family consists of anglophiles. We love U.K. movies of any genre, including comedies—the quirkier, the better. An odd-ball flick directed by John Schlesinger is Cold Comfort Farm (2002). This wacky tale gives us wit, charm, eccentric characters, and a really big bull. A young London society woman, recently orphaned, goes to live with peculiar relatives inhabiting an English farm, intent on bringing order and freedom to their morbid and chaotic lives. The excellent cast includes Eileen Atkins, Ian McKellen, Kate Beckinsale, Joanna Lumley, and Rufus Sewell. Non-Brits will definitely need subtitles to cut through the English accents and to fully appreciate descriptions such as, “scranletting at Tickle Benny Corner,” things done with a “pruning snoot,” names like “Urk,” and of course, the pivotal, “I saw something nasty in the woodshed.” And remember, “There’ll be no butter in Hell!” Feel free to quiver and laugh.

About a Boy (2002). Hugh Grant stars as a charismatic, yet smug bachelor content on avoiding any form of responsibility in his “island” world. But burden seeks him out in the form of a nerdy boy who works his way into the bachelor’s heart. Toni Collette (always splendid) plays the unstable, geeky mother in this funny, heartwarming tale about a boy growing up too fast and a man maturing too slowly. Great script, fine flick. Like any really good movie, it holds up after several viewings.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974). Inspired by the success of the British TV program, the members of Monty Python lead us along on their goofy quest for laughs—and scads are supplied for us to memorize and recite in the comfort of our homes. However, most people appreciate this movie merely for its hilarity, thereby neglecting its important educational aspects. For instance, you can observe the battle methods of killer rabbits with big, pointy teeth; learn the finer points of taunting English Kniggets; grasp important facts regarding both European and African swallows; study the intricacies of using the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch; discover why its bad to lose your appendages while sword fighting; and understand why you must avoid women named Zoot and other naughty temptresses. By the way, skipping along the ground along with the use of coconuts to make the clicking sound of horses’ hooves was inspired by a low budget, which the cast transformed into memorable silliness. If you’ve seen this only once, see it again, then maybe three or four times (five is right out).

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), relies on the screenwriting skills of Richard Curtis, who received an Oscar nod for this clever, hilarious take on a commitment-phobic Charles, as portrayed by Hugh Grant, in his best performance ever. This could have been called the Squirm Movie, for many characters suffer public or private embarrassment, always to our amusement. Though Grant’s character spends the movie pining for a guest he meets at the first wedding, I think the heart and zest of this story arises from Grant and his odd collection of friends, which include Kristin Scott Thomas, John Hannah, James Fleet, and Simon Callow, who provides both its zaniest and most solemn moments. (Sadly, Grant’s platonic roommate played by Charlotte Coleman, left us a few years back at an early age.) Oh, and don’t miss Rowan Atkinson as a tongue-tied priest performing his first wedding. Look for old girlfriends, the Holy Spigot, the dangers of the Highland Fling, and a deaf man who makes it all clear in a movie that’s charming and oh, so funny.

*****I’ve recently realized that I’m not really an anglophile, and neither are my husband and college-aged daughter—we’re just entertainment anglophiles. My dad loved Benny Hill. Yes, I do cherish my 4 pm cup of Earl Grey, but I don’t really follow the British royal family beyond newspaper headlines, though I wish them the best; but I’m much more interested in what Helen Mirren, Colin Firth, and Emma Watson will do next. I do think it’s a shame that players no longer curtsey or bow to the royalty at Wimbledon. Tradition does have its place. Okay, back to British comedies.

Assuming my knowledge of roman numerals is correct, Saving Grace hit the theaters in 1995. From the starting point of very serious situations—the suicide of a husband and the mountain of debts he left behind—comes a wacky comedy starring the splendid Brenda Blethyn as she resorts to drastic measures to rid herself of debt and keep her home. Joyfully quirky, this English comedy was co-written by Craig Ferguson, who also stars. It leaves the sympathetic viewer wondering what’s going to happen next as we enter the worlds of these oddball characters. Silly, clever, it’s a Brenda Blethyn classic. If you’re American or anything other than British, you must get to know this actor. I’ll mention her again in British drama. In the meanwhile, enjoy some good, hard laughs in this flick that features numerous, droll secondary characters. Fun stuff.

The Full Monty (1997). Motivated by unemployment and desperation, seven men from England’s Yorkshire north go to drastic measures—a full-naked striptease—to make money. The difficulties the men experience as they prepare for the show test their bravery, their determination, and their friendships. More compelling and less raunchy than you’d expect, this humorous tale is surprisingly touching. This is a movie with heart—Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay attest to its quality.

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain (1995). Hugh Grant stars as a bumbling yet likable cartographer who riles the locals of southern Wales when he and his senior partner declare their beloved landmark a hill. With World War I as its emotional backdrop, the town people, led by the irreverent barkeep (Colm Meany) and the reverent Reverend Jones (Kenneth Griffith, in fine form) resolve to protect and authenticate their “mountain.” The English surveyors prove no match against the conspiracy, eccentricity, and Welsh work ethic the town musters. One of the conspirators, the lovely “Miss Elizabeth” (Tara Fitzgerald), befuddles and charms her way into the heart of the young map maker, a former soldier. Quaint, quirky, and witty, this Welsh comedy is a delightful find.

 

 

Musicals:

The entries in this category range from sappy to gritty, with many of the best taking a middle ground. Examples of the corny but likable, anti-noir musicals include Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby movies such as Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936), Holiday Inn (1942), and White Christmas (1954). Catchy tunes by composers such as Irving Berlin and loads of great dancing fill these flicks, which lack strong plots but pour on the syrup. White Christmas is notable as a musical made in a blast of color. The art department and the Queen of Costumers, Edith Head, really make the musical numbers explode with color. Where else would you find green tuxedos with red shirts? This movie is cornball, sugary escapism and absolutely perfect for the holiday season. Though mired in hokum, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man with Robert Preston and Shirley Jones is great fun with a surprisingly clever script.

One of the most popular movies in history is The Sound of Music from 1965. Even with the rise of fascism in the background, the movie drips syrup, but makes for a great family movie. Like her performance in Mary Poppins (1964), Julie Andrews is, well, “practically perfect in every way” and an Oscar winner for Mary Poppins. Though it’s not my favorite, many consider Singin’ in the Rain (1952) the greatest musical ever. It does include an interesting story depicting the transition of Hollywood from silent films to “talkies.” Also, it includes several memorable musical set pieces, particularly Gene Kelly singing and dancing in the rain (which he managed with a high fever—I know, I’m just full of useless trivia). And you could always count on the team of Rogers and Hammerstein to provide the music that infects you with “head-stickers”—my lingo for songs that get stuck in your head, sometimes for longer than you’d like. How about the refrain: “Oh, What a Wonderful Feeling,” from Oklahoma as an example. Trust me on this—I’ve been a resident of the Midwest all my life, and no corn grows six feet higher than a man on a horse, as portrayed in the opening scene of Oklahoma. But Gordon McCrea’s gorgeous baritone voice quickly induces forgiveness. Though it’s easy to criticize some musicals for sugary content, it’s hard to ignore the tremendous talent of Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Julie Andrews, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, Gordon McCrea, Robert Preston, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and many others.

Turn off the phone, let the doorbell ring, suffer the baby to cry—when Fred Astaire does his firecracker dance, or Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen decide the best things happen when you dance, or Gene Kelly opens his umbrella, nothing else exists. You are transported into delightful oblivion for at least three minutes or so. And isn’t that what we love about movies—even ones that belong to another generation? We allow Hollywood to take us away. Sober escapism is wonderful, for reality looms for us just off screen, just minutes away.

As for musicals with grit and pizzazz, four movies stand out: All That Jazz (1979), dazzle, grit, debauchery; Moulin Rouge (2001), gaudy pizzazz, TB, death, humor; Chicago (2002), murder, great script, good fun; and Cabaret (1972), grit, Nazis, and Liza. Like Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, Liza Minnelli seems to have been born to play this role (and both won Oscars).

The latest big-budget musical entry is Nine from 2009. It offers a slew of great numbers directed by Chicago’s Rob Marshall, but the script is weak. Do we need to see another movie about a man who can’t grow up? So, rent the movie, and then go from each musical number to the next, but include all the scenes involving Marion Cotillard. Fergie belts it, Judi Dench savors it, Kate Hudson surprises us, and Penelope Cruz swoons and croons.

As for a musical I detested? That honor goes to Oliver! Trust me, I know my Dickens and the story of Oliver Twist was never meant to be sung. Grrrrr! And then there’s the strange case of Paint Your Wagon. This story of gold prospecting and pioneers in California should never have been a musical. It features a hilarious script by Paddy Chayefsky (Network), and fun performances by Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg. I enjoy this movie, and I do recommend it, just be ready to skip over some of the songs.

As for the best of the rest, where would we be without Marnie Nixon? You may not know her name, but you know her voice as the leads in My Fair Lady (1964) for Audrey Hepburn, The King and I (1954) for Deborah Kerr, and West Side Story (1961) for Natalie Wood—all excellent musicals. She does get screen time as a nun in The Sound of Music. As for other great musicals, I’ve discussed The Wizard of Oz, and various Disney and Muppet movies. Disney’s The Princess and the Frog from 2009 provides snazzy, jazzy tunes and a wonderful performance by Anika Noni Rose, a veteran of Dream Girls (2006). Also, Grease (1978) is great fun, as is The Beatle’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964). As for the latter, no, the dialogue was not improvised as it appears to delightful effect. Screenwriter Alun Owen followed the Fab Four around until he could capture their lingo in a script. The music always gives me goose-bumps. Once (2006) gives us the indie version of a drama-musical with Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. This story seems so personal, so intimate in a way none of the versions of A Star is Born ever could.

Les Miserables (2012). An epic musical set in 19th century France, it features a fantastic cast including Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway (an Oscar win for her role), Russell Crowe, and Amanda Seyfried. A powerful adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel, this is heavy stuff; though, Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen look to be having a great time. If you want to see this classic story without the singing, try the excellent 1998 movie with Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Danes.

Now to my favorite musical—Fiddler on the Roof (1971). This gem finally came out on Blu-ray to celebrate its 40th Anniversary. It’s the story of a poor milkman with five daughters living in early 20th century Russia. Despite the family’s misfortunes, the film is full of humor. Of course, the music is fantastic, with memorable songs by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, adapted for the movie and conducted by John Williams, with violin solos by Isaac Stern. And yet the script and the winning performances never let this film sink into maudlin mush. In fact, this drama-musical scores points for grittiness with anti-Semitism (including a pogrom), burdensome tradition, poverty, and the rise of Bolshevism forcefully driving the plot. Topol plays the father with gruff charisma; Norma Crane plays the mother with an earthy alto maturity. The film was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (Norman Jewison), and Best Actor (Topol). The cast is top-notch. Songs such as, “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” and “Sunrise, Sunset” are delightful head-stickers. Enjoy.

 

Epics:

And no, I don’t mean the latest slang for “awesome.” In a general sense, the term “epic” pertains to tales that are heroic, grand, majestic, or imposing in scope. Also, it may relate to events of historic or legendary importance. And yes, these events may be awesome. (In literature, it pertains to long narrative poems about the deeds of traditional or historical hero or heroes, such as Homer’s the Iliad or the Odyssey, Milton’s Paradise Lost, or Dante’s the Inferno.) Feel free to use this information to impress your friends, family, or household pets.

This list is in no particular order; I’m simply starting with the one I watched most recently. Oh, and I won’t be covering Gone With The Wind or Lord of the Rings as those epic flicks have already been discussed. In addition, westerns and war movies will be handled in their own categories.

 

Ben-Hur (1959). Top to bottom, this is quality stuff. I’ve seen it several times as an adult and many times as a kid, when it was one of those “event” movies featured on network TV every year, like the Wizard of Oz, The Ten Commandments, or It’s a Wonderful Life. This third and most famous version is derived from the novel by Civil War (Union) General Lew Wallace. Ben-Hur won eleven Oscars, including Best Picture, a feat equaled only by Titanic and LOTR:The Return of the King. The cast is superb, especially Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, and Cathy O’Donnell. The movie was a huge box office success, which helped save MGM from bankruptcy. It employed 50,000 extras and included 350 speaking roles with an accordingly massive budget.

Set in Roman-conquered Judea, the story centers on Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince (Charlton Heston), whose life runs parallel in time to that of Jesus Christ. While Jesus pursues his mission, Judah is wrongfully accused of an attack on a Roman governor by his boyhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), now a tribune, and is sentenced to slavery in a Roman galley. (In the galley of a Roman warship we see the miserable conditions of the men who served there. We also see mostly-naked men in loin cloths. Ladies, along with Heston, there’s a particularly fine specimen of the male Homo sapien on the right side near the front. Hmm, I can’t seem to recall his face…) Meanwhile, Judah’s mother and sister are imprisoned. In a battle at sea, Judah escapes and returns to Judea seeking revenge against Messala, four years after his conviction.

Their confrontation culminates in the famous chariot race, which amazed by teenage nephew, who couldn’t imagine how they produced such an amazing and dangerous spectacle without green screens and CGI. Indeed, the actors did drive the chariots and provided some stunt work, with trained drivers (where did they find experienced chariot drivers?) executing the most difficult tasks. At one time, the rumor mill claimed one of the stunt performers died during the filming, but it was simply convincing film-making (and possibly over-zealous PR staffers). Another tale asserted Judah and Messala had been boyhood lovers. Several writers contributed ideas to the screenplay, including Gore Vidal, which gave some credence to the claim. However, Charlton Heston flatly denied the relationship was homosexual. As he was the actor playing the part, I tend to believe him. Karl Tunberg, the only credited screenwriter, was rightly nominated for an Oscar.

I’ve always marveled that while the Jews in Jerusalem chafed under the yoke of Roman dominance, the wealthier Jewish families kept slaves, including the household of Hur. I can only assume this account of the early A.D. years was accurate. Anyway, Judah’s life crosses paths with Jesus twice: first, when Jesus gives Judah water as he is marched to the galleys; and second, at the time of crucifixion. You will note the face of Jesus is never shown in the movie–an odd circumstance of Jewish film-makers portraying the life of Jesus Christ. The forces in control also depict Christ as slightly built, when in fact, he had been hiking throughout Judea for thirty years and would have looked as rugged as the terrain.

Speaking of rugged, the late Charlton Heston gives us that powerful physical presence an epic requires. He garners our sympathy and hope then carries us through the movie to his transformation, just as Christ is transformed on the cross. Charlton Heston won an Oscar for his portrayal, yet his performance is uneven. You sense he is trying too hard; yet director William Wyler, who won for best director, manages to get a good enough performance from Heston to avoid distracting the viewer from an otherwise grand movie. Rent it, buy it, enjoy it.

Dr. Zhivago (1965). The epitome of an epic, this story sweeps across the massive tumult of World War I, the Russian Revolution, the subsequent civil war, and the aftermath of political insecurity and turmoil. Yet the story details the emotions and sufferings of a few individuals embroiled in history. In this exquisite adaptation of the Boris Pasternak novel by director David Lean, we see history–all through the eyes of a man who begins the story as an orphan. The novel contains more of the political side of the story, whereas the movie focuses on a few main characters, who mainly represent the kindly bourgeoisie. (That is one bitchin’ word to spell at 11:20 p.m. Long live France, but dang you people drop consonants like hot potatoes then pile useless vowels upon vowels. To find a more difficult language you’d need to look all the way to English.)

Dr. Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) marries his childhood sweetheart Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin, the daughter of Charlie Chaplin) then enters his military duties as a surgeon. During his service he meets Lara (the great Julie Christie), the wife of a big shot Bolshevik (Tom Courtenay). After the Revolution, Yuri returns home to find his family suffering under the austere mandates of the new Communist government. The family then flees to the old family home near the Ural Mountains, in an arduous train journey, where Yuri discovers Lara. Shortly after they begin their love affair, Yuri is kidnapped by Red forces for use as their physician, as they battle the rural, anti-Communist “Whites.” Yuri escapes in a memorable, frozen trek back to Lara, who informs him that his wife and child have fled to France. Hounded by Lara’s old bully-lover (Rod Steiger), Yuri and Lara travel to a frigid country estate with Lara’s daughter. However, peace eludes them, and tragedy follows.

Framed in a flashback narrated by Yuri’s step-brother played by the excellent Alec Guinness, this is a masterpiece of film-making. As with all great films, it all comes together–story, direction, cinematography, acting, art direction, music–and it all works. A war story and a love story, it depicts a revolution of a nation and the upheaval of millions of souls–some hopeful, some lost, some sacrificed. A steady rhythm of happiness and tragedy move the story along. Ultimately, the choices the generally passive Yuri makes results in joy, heartache, reunion, separation, and finally despair for all his loved ones. Yuri is a man of passion and compassion: He heals the injured and wounded; he writes the poetry even Soviet society embraces; he loves his wife and child; he finds the great love of his life in another woman; and yet he discovers he loves nothing more than Mother Russia. A classic for all time.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Both majestic and ambitious, David Lean’s desert masterpiece is considered by many to be the greatest epic ever made. Loosely based on the life of T.E. Lawrence, the eccentric scholar and British officer leads an Arab revolt in 1916 against the Turks (who were aligned with Germany as World War I approached). Lawrence, the slightly built, blue-eyed Brit (played by Peter O’Toole), surprises his small Arab force with his courage and leadership. He wins the allegiance of other Arab forces then his army routs the Turks. Lawrence leads his fractious Arab army to other victories before arriving in Damascus; he relinquishes control of the city to a council of Arab leaders, whose feuding threatens to undermine the battlefield successes. T.E. Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident in 1935.

I was amazed that Peter O’Toole did not win an Oscar for his larger-than-life role of a man brimming with the arrogance of success then humbled by his fall from grace. (Then I realized O’Toole lost to the great American hero, Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.) O’Toole does have an honorary Academy Award, as well as eight nominations. Other cast members include Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, and Claude Rains. The grandmaster of the epic, David Lean, won an Oscar for best director. With gorgeous cinematography, a grand score, a top-notch screenplay, this is a movie meant to be seen on the big screen. However, a DVD viewing does offer subtitles, which helps to keep track of the many characters. The spectacular desert and battles scenes appear even more impressive given that the movie as made long before computer-generated effects. Thus the cast of thousands means thousands of people, not computer images. As one of Hollywood’s greatest motion pictures, this must not be missed.

Schindler’s List (1993). I confess, I was a scaredy-cat when it came to watching this movie for the first time. All the accolades it garnered only made it worse, for I knew a well-made Holocaust film would be even more powerful, more painful. I was right, though I’ve now seen it five times. I find tremendous appeal in powerful movies with impact; yet this movie provides more than impact, it has force: kick-in-the-gut, shock-your-senses force. It is the blow to the head and heart that only historical truth can deliver. Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece won all the major Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Photography (Janusz Kaminski, Holly Hunter’s ex), Editing, and Score (John Williams, you may have heard of him, he has 795 Oscars). In addition, Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes were nominated for acting. You really need to be in a particular mood to watch this motion picture, which manages to mix heavy doses of horror and inspiration into 185 minutes.

Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler is a Nazi businessman who takes full advantage of the unpaid labor and finances of Polish Jews who’ve been herded into the Krakow ghetto. Schindler wines, dines, and bribes his way into the good graces of the Nazi hierarchy. Schindler brings in a Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern (the always excellent Ben Kingsley) to run his cookware plant; subsequently, Schindler becomes rich as he exploits the war for personal gain. However, in 1942, the Krakow Jews are sent to the Plaszow Forced Labor Camp run by Commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). Schindler realizes employment in his factory is the only factor that keeps his workers from being shipped to a death camp. He then uses his money to “buy” his workers, those on the List, from the Nazis. By the time the factory is liberated, Schindler is broke, but has saved the lives of over 1,100 Jews.

Even as Schindler is the central character, the story follows the lives of several Jews and Jewish families as they struggle to survive brutal, degrading, bloodcurdling conditions. Though the film is essentially in black and white, undoubtedly to emphasize the starkness of the oppression, we do see a young girl in a red coat on various occasions. Later in the movie I remember watching a stream of Jews hauling dead Jews on carts to be incinerated. When in one cart I saw the girl in the red coat, it was as if I had known her. Note the small hand and the red coat sleeve appears on the cover of the DVD. In contrast to the girl in the red coat, an individual, we see groups of people gunned down, and other groups of people led into the gas chamber in a display of mass horror.

Truly, this is a movie filled with striking contrasts. In Oskar Schindler we find an immoral man, an adulterer and a manipulative businessman, who discovers his conscience, his morality, and becomes a hero. The portrayal of good versus evil is particularly stark. The vicious Nazi guards display brutality and cruelty; whereas the faith and courage of the Jews inspires us. And of course, we have the List. In one of cinema’s great lines, Itzhak Stern says, “The list is an absolute good. The list is life.” In direct counterpoint is the embodiment of evil–Commandant Amon Goeth. Certainly, he is a character to hate. Lacking any sense of human decency, he impulsively murders Jews from his balcony for sport. When the piles of corpses must be burned, he thinks only of the inconvenience to himself. A complicated man, he alternately beats, rapes, and loves his Jewish maid. The casting for Schindler and Goeth is perfect. Ralph Fiennes is an actor who can portray a decent man, as in a Constant Gardener, or he can play a scary, smart, and evil character, someone like the Unabomber, or in fiction, Voldemort (he can play characters with or without human noses). I wondered why these two actors didn’t win Oscars, and then I did a little research and discovered that Neeson lost to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and Fiennes lost to Tommy Lee Jones in the Fugitive. Okay, tough call. I thought Ben Kingsley warranted a nomination, but the Academy probably skipped him because he already had an Oscar for Gandhi. Though the movie never seeks to portray Schindler as a saint, he is the focus; therefore, the story fails to mention the major role that Emilie Schindler played in saving Jews from the death camp.

Not only is SL a drama of the first class, it is a compelling thriller. Who will die next? The Rabbi? The little girl with the glasses? Stern? Pfefferberg? After Germany is defeated, even Schindler must flee for his life. Thus we are drawn into the lives of individuals, as well as the fate of the Jewish populace. The great achievement of this film is found in its ability to present the scope of the wartime atrocities, yet maintain its immediacy.  This blending of great and small presents the essential characteristic of great epics. Think of Leo Tolstoy, David Lean, Victor Hugo, and certainly Steven Spielberg, who belong to different art forms, but possess the ability to meld the grand picture with the intimacy of a few individuals. Likewise we have Mozart’s music, which may delight you with layered melodies as he blasts us with a full symphony and chorus, only to break for the quiet, soulful cry of the clarinet or french horn, just as we hear the wail of an individual’s call of fear and despair amid the blare of war.  If you haven’t seen this movie, find the mood and savor its greatness.

Spartacus (1960). Akin to Ben-Hur, this is an “old-school” epic with ancient Rome as the enemy. Unlike Judah Ben-Hur, Spartacus did exist and he did lead a slave revolt. Born into slavery, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) worked the mines of Libya until he was sold into the life of a gladiator. He led the rebellion that gathered slaves from a swath of Italy. Unable to flee Italy, the slave army, comprised of men, women, children, and elderly runaways, successfully fought Roman armies until the tactics of Roman General Crassus (Laurence Olivier) trap the runaways with three Roman legions, slaughtering them. Male prisoners were then crucified along the Appian Way when they refused to identify Spartacus. History will claim that the body of Spartacus was never found, but novelist Howard Fast and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo create a more dramatic conclusion.

Along with Douglas, a producer, and Olivier, the excellent cast includes Jean Simmons as Varinia, the wife of Spartacus, Charles Laughton, as the Roman senator Gracchus, Tony Curtis, as a runaway slave, and Peter Ustinov, the gladiator trainer, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance. Rumor has it that Douglas spent some of his own money to make the film. The unfortunate stinginess of Universal Pictures does result in a few evening outdoor scenes filmed inside a back lot studio. Undoubtedly, arid regions of California stood in for central and southern Italy.

Shortly after filming began, Douglas fired director Anthony Mann and brought in Stanley Kubrick to complete the film, which he did with excellent results–mixing the affluent, overindulgent Romans and their senatorial power struggle with that of the once-lowly slaves, hardened by travel and battle, buoyed by the tremendous power of unity that leads them to freedom (and eventually death). The master director paces the movie expertly, alternating between the action of gladiators or their rampage through the country and the quiet moments of individuals scheming in the senate or contemplating the joy of freedom and the uncertainty of the future.

Although the “I am Spartacus” line is the most famous, Kubrick, not known for abundant sentiment, delivers a touching scene at the end of the movie when Varinia shows her baby to Spartacus, who is dying the horrible death of crucifixion alongside the men who followed him, and says, “This is your son. He’s free, Spartacus. He’s free. He’s free.”

Though plenty of action and brutality is shown, Spartacus never forgets to show the misery of slavery, the joy of falling in love, the ecstasy of freedom, and the brotherhood that forms among people who yearn for freedom. A modern movie of this genre would drench every possible scene with excessive sex and blood. But here, the director and writers never allow the audience to forget this is ultimately a story about the struggle of the human soul. Watch it again in its restored version.

As a side note, Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter and novelist, and the screenwriter for Spartacus, was one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of directors and writers who refused to testify during Congress’ investigation of communist activities in the film industry during the 1940s and 1950s. Trumbo, a member of Communist Party USA, was cited for contempt of Congress; he served 11 months in prison and was blacklisted by Hollywood. After his release from prison he continued writing, receiving two Oscars for screenplays he wrote using a fictitious name or a front man. Kirk Douglas made public Trumbo’s role as screenwriter for Spartacus, an event which is considered the beginning of the end of the blacklist. Trumbo died in 1976, having been reinstated in the Writers Guild of America and credited with the scripts he had written.

Titanic (1997). Like Lord of the Rings, this is an example of a “new-school” epic, a story that relies heavily on computer technology. Unlike LOTR, this tells the story of an actual event, the sinking of the Irish-built ocean liner that capsizes in the north Atlantic and the subsequent death of 1517 passengers and crew members. Impressive in scope, the story finds its heart in the fictional tale in the rich-man, poor-woman love story. The lovers, along with the other passengers, face tragedy when the ship hits an iceberg and founders. Framed by a modern recounting of the event by one of the lovers, the tragic voyage is well-plotted as back story. Though it’s notable that it gives us the rare epic without an Oscar nomination for writing; James Cameron, the screenwriter, also directs and produces. Nonetheless, this thriller is compelling, touching, and horrifying in spectacular fashion, with several strong performances, namely, Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kathy Bates, and Gloria Stuart.

The story behind the story is nearly as famous as the movie itself. Reports during the filming portrayed James Cameron as a maniacal slave master on the most expensive movie of all time (it required financing from both Fox and Paramount). The actors had a rough time of it–enduring (accidental) food poisoning in Nova Scotia and extensive (intentional) scenes in freezing water. However, the record eleven Oscars (tying Ben-Hur) and the blockbuster revenues exceeding $1 billion worldwide transformed Cameron into an ultra-successful genius. I do feel like I’m writing about a movie you’ve all seen, but if you haven’t, rent the Blu-ray version and enjoy a fantastic film.

Gandhi (1982). A then little-known actor by the name of Ben Kingsley won the role of lifetime when he portrayed Mohandas Gandhi in this powerful, inspirational story directed by Richard Attenborough, both of whom won Oscars for their work. For Attenborough, it was a twenty-year battle to get the story to the silver screen. For Kingsley, the British actor with an Indian father, he needed to beat out a slew of competitors for the role, including Alec Guinness, Peter Finch, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Albert Finney, John Hurt, and Richard Burton. To prepare for the role, Sir Ben shred weight, took up yoga, learned to spin cotton, and generally tried to live life like Gandhi did. The film won eight Oscars, including best picture, and gave us an old-style epic. Gandhi’s funeral scene required eleven cameras and 400,000 extras. Much of the movie was filmed on the actual historic locations. The music was written and composed by Ravi Shankar and George Fenton, who received an Oscar nomination for best score. By the way, Ravi Shankar is the father of Norah Jones. That was a set up for your odd bit of trivia for the day.

John Briley’s Oscar-winning script starts with Gandhi’s funeral in 1948, an epic in itself, then flashes back to his early days as a young lawyer protesting against apartheid in South Africa. From there the story follows Gandhi’s fight against British imperialism in his homeland. Though one of the world’s great leaders, his peaceful protests often spurred violence and death; eventually it led to his lengthy imprisonment. Gandhi wished for an integrated society; however, the victory against the British, freedom, resulted in separate nations–the primarily Muslim Pakistan and the multi-cultural India. I recommend you witness this grand, compelling depiction of a great man of the not-so-distant past.

 

Copyright Judy Bruce and Hey Joood blog, 2017. Duplication is prohibited.

 

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