These Orchids are Deadly

220px-Adaptation._filmAdaptation. (2002)

It’s a loose adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a non-fiction account of the arrest of John Laroche for poaching rare plants in Florida.

Calling it an adaptation is a sleight of hand by Jonze and frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman.  It’s more like an interpretation; freely adding fictional elements to Orlean’s non-fiction work.

Kaufmann is a consistently inventive screenwriter.  From Being John Malkovich (1999), to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), to Synecdoche, New York (2008), his films are hyper post-modern examinations of the fractured reality of 21st century existence.

Kaufmann was hired to adapt The Orchid Thief and, suffering from writer’s block, wrote a screenplay about his struggle, creating a fictional identical twin brother in the process.  As a joke, he gave this make-believe brother a co-screenwriting credit, making Donald Kaufmann the first (and only) fictional character to earn an Academy Award nomination.

In an insightful parody of the Hollywood process, Charlie attends a screenwriting seminar led by controversial Hollywood guru, Robert McKee.

Donald suspects Orlean (Meryl Streep) is hiding something, so the brothers follow her to Florida and discover she’s having an affair with Laroche (Chris Cooper).  The reason he stole the orchid was because the plant can be used to create a drug which causes fascination.  Laroche gave this drug to Orlean and she subsequently developed an obsession with him.

The end of the film is a pastiche of action movie clichés as Orlean and Laroche try to kill the Kaufmanns to protect their secret.

Chris Cooper was a late bloomer with Lone Star (1996),  but afterwards exploded with roles in American Beauty (1998), The Patriot (2000), the Bourne movies, Capote (2005), The Town (2010), The Muppets (2011) and Norman Obsorn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014).  He deservedly won an Oscar for his work as John Laroche.

Nicholas Cage is talented, but often chooses movies not worthy of his talent and claimed in 2011 to have developed his own style of acting, “Noveau Shamanic.”  His dual role as Charlie and Donald Kaufmann,  while not likely to change any opinions, is one of his best performances.

Despite only directing four feature films, Spike Jonze has developed a reputation for experiential narrative in films where a secret door provides access to John Malkovich’s mind, or a man falls in love with his phone’s operating system.

The more you pursue the seeming loose ends in this twisted, funny movie, the more you realize Kaufmann and Jonze anticipated your questions and answered them.  It’s a perfect film to begin a new millennium, deconstructing the practice of adapting works of art to different mediums.

This film was replaced as my favorite film released in 2002 by Talk to Her.

Talk to Her (2002)When Lydia falls into a coma after suffering serious injuries during a bullfight, her boyfriend Marco faithfully visits her every day at the hospital until he learns she had intended to break up with him but never had the opportunity.

Benigno, a male nurse at the hospital, is assigned to take care of Alicia Roncero, another coma patient who was once a promising dance student.

When lab work shows Alicia is pregnant, a hospital investigation identifies Benigno as the father. Unexpectedly, the physical shock revives Alicia, but her child is stillborn.  After he’s arrested and jailed for his crime, Benigno commits suicide.

Despite the appalling and reprehensible act Beningo perpetrates on Alicia, Almodovar casts him in a sympathetic light, implying his actions are a product of intellectual limitations and emotional issues stemming from his relationship with his mother. Alicia was an outlet to release his frustration and sadness about his lonely, isolated life; this vulnerability created an attachment which Benigno misinterpreted as love.

Almodovar bizarrely films the rape scene as a stylized parody of the silent films Benigno loves, which further contextualizes his actions.  The film stops just short of justifying the rape, but we are saddened by Benigno’s  imprisonment; his death is not the righteous punishment due a rapist, but the devastating demise of a misguided outcast.

A modern-day Douglas Sirk, Pedro Almodovar specializes in female centric melodramas filtered through the tropes of Spanish language soap operas and uses dark humor to expose cracks in the facade of normalcy and challenge convention.

This movie illuminates the fine line between love and obsession. Love leads us to place the needs of others above our own. Obsession leads us to subjugate and displace the needs of our beloved. Love is a mutual agreement, while obsession is a one way street. The obsessed will talk to her, a lover will listen.

Tim’s Big Adventure

Edward ScissosrhandsEdward Scissorhands (1990)

When Avon salesman Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest) discovers Edward, (Johnny Depp) the final creation of The Inventor (Vincent Price), living alone in an abandoned mansion, she pities him and takes him to live with her family.

Edward falls in love with Peg’s daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder), but their relationship is complicated by her jealous boyfriend, a sexually aggressive neighbor, and Edward’s lack of hands.

The Inventor died before he could finish Edward, leaving him with scissors instead of hands, and, as a result, he’s great at ice sculpting, cutting bushes, and styling hair, but pretty lousy at holding things.

With the possible exception of his work as Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, this, the first of Depp’s countless collaborations with Tim Burton, is the best thing  he’s ever done. They’ve become so intertwined in the public consciousness, it’s easy to see Depp, and therefore Edward, as a proxy for Burton’s own feelings of isolation and loneliness. 

One of the things which makes this film memorable is the obvious, genuine chemistry between Depp and Ryder.  It should shock no one to learn they dated following the completion of the film and were briefly engaged.

Alan Arkin and Diane Wiest are fantastic as Edward’s adopted parents and may be the best, and most authentic representation, of parenthood in any Burton film.

Despite a fifty two year career, this is Vincent Price’s legacy.  His earlier work will fade away, but his late performances (playing, essentially, an exaggerated version of himself) in this and his contribution to Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983) will blaze brightly for years to come.

This was the first of Tim Burton’s films to merge his unique vision with a universally relatable story. It’s much easier to identify with the socially awkward, self-conscious teenager in Edward Scissorhands than the overgrown man-child in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), or the mischievous ghost in Beetlejuice (1988), or the billionaire crime fighter in Batman (1989).

This film was succeeded as my favorite film released in 1990 by Postcards from the Edge.

Postcards from the Edge (1990)Actress Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) reluctantly moves in with her mother, Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine), a star of musical comedies in the 1950s and 1960s, because studio executives demand she stay with a responsible party when she returns to work following a stint in a drug rehabilitation center.

Meryl Streep is very funny as the conflicted Suzanne, but she’s not as good as her costar Shirley MacLaine.

Suffering from the same fate as many older actresses, MacLaine’s star has faded as she’s aged, but this film reminds us: when given quality material, she’s a more than capable actress. Doris is torn in a million pieces: she wants to be a good mother, but she’s jealous of her daughter’s success; she’s nostalgic for the days when she was a big star, but doesn’t want to admit those days have passed.

I’m a sucker for an energetic musical number and this film delivers, in a scene which more or less encapsulates the whole movie.

Mike Nichols was a powerhouse director of famed Broadway musicals, including the original productions of Annie and Spamalot, and an accomplished film director, including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Graduate (1967), The Birdcage (1996), and Closer (2004). Unusual among big name directors, he seemed content to let his work speak for itself, rarely going out of his way to seek the limelight.

In addition to Streep and MacLaine, this film features Dennis Quaid as a philandering producer, Gene Hackman as a kind director, Richard Dreyfuss as a doctor who takes an interest in Suzanne, and Annette Benning as a small time actress.

Streep and MacLaine are very good, but the movie is special because of its backstory. Carrie Fisher (of Princess Leia fame), wrote the novel on which the film was based and the screenplay for this film adaptation. It’s easy to see the relationship between Suzanne and Doris as a stand in for the relationship between Fisher and her famous mother, Debbie Reynolds.

This film skillfully combines a biting Hollywood satire, a touching movie about family jealousies, and a juicy tell-all memoir.

The Best of the 1950s

Sunset Boulevard (1950)Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Faded silent screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) steadfastly believes she will regain her former glory and hires writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) to help with her planned comeback, but as the project drags on their relationship becomes dangerously complicated.

William Holden brings a weary everyman quality to Joe Gillis while Gloria Swanson’s history as a former silent movie star adds an emotional depth to her performance. Erich von Stroheim, himself a famed silent director, is perfectly cast in the subservient and humiliating role of Max von Mayerling, Norma’s butler.

The cameos by director Cecil B. DeMille (largely credited with making Swanson’s career) and silent film legends Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nilsson blur the line between the fictional world created by Charles Brackett and Wilder and reality.

This cautionary fable is a near perfect film about identity and the fickleness of fame and one of the sharpest and most insightful examinations of the nature of Hollywood.

People Will Talk (1951)People Will Talk (1951)

This bizarre movie merges several seemingly incongruous narrative strands in a Seinfeldian way. There’s a man who survived an execution, an unmarried, pregnant woman whose fear of embarrassing her alcoholic father leads to a suicide attempt, a doctor who pretends he’s a butcher because the town doesn’t believe in medicine, and a jealous rival hellbent on sabotaging the career of his competition.

In a career full of funny, charming performances, Cary Grant’s work as Dr. Noah Praetorius is one of his most interesting roles.

Jeanne Crain is delightful as the pregnant Deborah Higgins who falls in love with Praetorius.

Hume Cronyn is ornery and spiteful as the jealous Professor Ewell and his inevitable comeuppance is immensely satisfying.

In a career which includes The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), A Letter to Three Wives (1949), All About Eve (1950), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), and Sleuth (1972), this is Joseph Mankiewicz’s funniest and most creative film.

It defies categorization: there’s melodrama, discussion of serious social issues, heroic self-sacrifice, romantic comedy, and courtroom drama. Like a great stew made of a hodgepodge of ingredients, its disparate components complement each other perfectly.

It’s difficult to imagine how a movie featuring a pregnant, unwed woman was made in 1952, but it was, it starred Cary Grant, and it’s a joyful miracle.

Ikiru (1952)Ikiru (1952)

When widowed, mid-level bureaucrat Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, he tries to drown his miseries in a bottle. When this fails, a younger female colleague inspires him to find something he’s passionate about. Emboldened, he dedicates his remaining life to creating a park out of a cesspool and dies a happy man, content with what he has accomplished in his life.

Surprisingly, this film doesn’t end with Watanabe’s death, but continues with the reaction of his friends and family following his demise. As his coworkers marvel about the change in attitude and renewed dedication to his work in the months before his death, they realize he must have known he was dying. His unspoken courage in the face of mortality inspires them.

This unassuming movie about an unimportant, dying man is Akira Kurosawa’s best and most important film. It teaches us to appreciate and celebrate life, and the final thirty minutes serve as a beautiful reminder our story does not end with death,  but begins as friends and family craft our legacy.

Tokyo Story (1953)Tokyo Story (1953)

When retired couple Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama visit their son and daughter in Tokyo, their children are too busy to spend any time with them; the only person who pays them any attention is their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko, and after Tomi’s death, Noriko is the only concerned about what will happen to Shukichi.

While Yasujiro Ozu’s quiet films are often compared to his contemporary Akira Kurosawa’s more action oriented work, both filmmakers provide invaluable insight into the psyche of the Japanese following their defeat in the second World War.

This loose remake of Leo McCarey’s 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow asks important questions about balancing the demands of family with other responsibilities. As people continue to live longer lives, and dealing with elderly parents becomes a rite of passage; this film is a poignant reminder of how difficult it is to grow old and how marginalized the elderly feel when their children brush them aside to focus on their own lives.

Dial M for Murder (1954) Dial M for Murder (1954)

When Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) discovers his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) is having an affair, he plots to have her killed.

Because she retired at the tender age of 26, Grace Kelly’s public image was frozen as a young, beautiful woman. Her marriage into royalty created a mystique and allure unique among American celebrities. Add a tragic and unexpected death, and you have a recipe for a legendary career despite only appearing in eleven feature films.

Ray Milland won an Oscar for his work in The Lost Weekend (1945), but his career is best understood as a slightly more celebrated version of Ronald Regan.

This film is pure Hitchcock: a betrayal, an intricate plan, a murder, and  a beautiful blonde.  It’s a modest movie with very specific goals, but it more than achieves them.

Ordet (1955)Ordet (1955)

Morten Bergen is a widower with three sons. His oldest, Mikkel, is married to Inger, a devout believer, but has lost his faith. The middle child, Johannes, is obsessed with Søren Kierkegaard and believes he’s Christ incarnate sent to reinvigorate the faith of the community. His youngest son, Anders, is in love with the daughter of a local religious leader.

When Inger dies, everyone dismisses Johannes’s claim she’ll rise from the dead if the family has faith as the ranting of a madman. However, when Inger’s young child innocently asks Johannes to bring her back, she revives, and everyone’s faith is renewed.

Carl Th. Dreyer’s films illuminate the practical ways philosophical theories impact the lives of individuals and give us a blueprint for the role of spirituality in the 20th century. This film doesn’t quiet reach the heights of his earlier film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1924), but it’s a wonderful examination of faith in the modern world.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

When Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart) learns about an upcoming assassination attempt on a foreign dignitary while vacationing in Morocco with his wife, Jo (Doris Day), their son is kidnapped to prevent him from sharing this information with the authorities.

Jimmy Stewart’s popular image as a wide-eyed everyman was cultivated in a series of beloved films with director Frank Capra: You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), but his later work with Alfred Hitchcock is much more subtle and jaded.

Doris Day’s work here shows a great deal more depth than the light romantic comedies with Rock Hudson for which she is best remembered. In the 1950s and 1960s, Day had a large, dedicated following, and still ranks among the highest grossing stars in Hollywood history. However, while other popular actresses of the same era, such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, are remembered fondly, Day’s star has faded as tastes have shifted.

A remake of his earlier 1934 film of the same name, this is Hitchcock’s most playful, lighthearted movie; there’s more humor than typically known for, and it prominently features a song.

“Que Sera Sera,” would become Day’s anthem and a frequent touchstone in popular culture, although few are aware of its Hitchcockian origin.

Much like Day’s career, this film is often overlooked and rarely mentioned among Hitchcock’s best. This misjudgment must be corrected. It’s a great film, made even better because it subverts our expectations. Because it’s so unlike his other work, it provides a unique view into the mind of one of the great artists of the 20th century.

Wild Strawberries (1957)Wild Strawberries (1957)

This film follows seventy-eight year old Professor Isak Borg (played by Bergman’s idol and mentor Victor Sjolstrom) as he travels to accept an award from his alma mater. Through a series of dreams, visions, and flashbacks, we learn how the unfulfilled promise of his childhood and adolescence caused him to become the bitter individual he is today.

The film doesn’t break new ground; many films focus on the elderly coming to terms with their mortality.  But in Bergman’s hands, an ordinary film becomes  profound, and this is the definitive film dirge, following Professor Borg as he prepares his mind and soul for his own imminent demise.

Vertigo (1958)Vertigo (1958)

Retired police detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) is asked by an old friend, Gavin Elster, to spy on his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), whom Elster believes is possessed by the spirit of a deceased relative.

During the course of this investigation, Scottie and Madeline begin a brief relationship which ends when she inexplicably runs to the top of a bell tower and jumps, killing herself.

Scottie is despondent until he meets Judy Barton who looks exactly like Madeline. They, too, begin a relationship, with Scottie vaguely suspecting the resemblance is more than coincidence. In order to uncover the truth, he is forced to confront his own past and fears.

Critical reception at the time of its release was tepid, but fifty years later, this dark, twisting tale of obsession is universally recognized as one of the greatest films from one of the greatest directors and one of Jimmy Stewart’s best performances.

Some Like it Hot (1959)Some Like it Hot (1959)

When jazz musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) witness the St. Valentine’ Day Massacre, they go on the run by pretending to be women and joining an all girl jazz band where Joe falls in love with bandmate Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe).

Tony Curtis is fantastic here, and in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Defiant Ones (1958) and Spartacus (1960). But in the 1960s, his career stalled, while costar Jack Lemmon’s soared. The divergent paths of their careers can be partially traced to their respective roles in this film. Curtis is great as Joe, but the role is not as flashy as Jerry. Lemmon got the laughs, while Curtis played it straight. Lemmon had already won an Oscar for Mister Roberts (1955), but the goodwill from this film made him a star.

Marilyn Monroe is so closely identified with the role of Sugar Kane, it’s easy to pretend she was playing herself. This melding of her private life and public persona makes her performance riveting.

While Billy Wilder’s earlier film, Sunset Boulevard (1950), was a dark, cynical satire, this film was focused solely on being as funny as possible, and it worked: in 2000, the American Film Institute named it the greatest comedy of all time.

With its foundation in cross-dressing, gender-bending comedy, this film serves as an important marker in understanding how attitudes about homosexuality and transgender issues have evolved in the last half-century.

Ernest and the We and the I am Sam

The We and the I (2012)

On the last day of school, of a group of teenagers who ride the same bus experience petty jealousies, bullying, and sexual insecurities. In other words, it’s a typical day for an adolescent trying to find their way in the world.

The problem is, I didn’t care about any of the characters. Most of them were broad stereotypes or obvious subversions of stereotypes: wait, you mean the tough as nails black boy is actually a sensitive artist, I never would have guessed, I must be racist.

It’s a two-hour exercise in white guilt.

Michael Gondry directed the creative Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004, eight years later, he directed this turd. How is this possible?

As a director, his voice is all over the place, like a macrocosm of this particular film which can’t figure out what it wants to say, so it decides to say everything at once, on one bus ride.

It’s a waste of time.

Ernest and Celestine (2012)

When the young mouse, Celestine, befriends a bear named Ernest, it challenges the conventions of both societies.

Most contemporary animation is full of bright, clean colors, but this film is composed of muted hues and looks like a moving watercolor painting.

The English voice cast is superb, including Forest Whitaker, Paul Giamatti, William H. Macey, married couple: Nick Offerman and Megan Mullaly, and the legendary Lauren Bacall, in one of her final roles.

This isn’t nuanced or complicated, it’s a simple love letter to friendship so lovingly crafted it carries you along in a wave of nostalgia for a forgotten time when friendship was paramount.

I am Sam (2001)

Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) is a single father struggling to do what’s best for his young daughter, Lucy (Dakota Fanning).  In addition to the normal challenges of parenthood, Sam has an additional obstacle, he’s mentally challenged.

Sean Penn plays against type as Sam Dawson and was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination, but unfortunately his performance violates a cardinal, unspoken rule as explained in Tropic Thunder (2008).

He’s convincing as Sam Dawson, but occasionally drifts into an unfortunate caricature. The movie unwisely asks us to root for Sam to be with his daughter in spite of his incompetence, as if the fact of his biological relationship with Lucy trumps any other consideration for her welfare.

Michele Pfeiffer does what she can as Sam’s attorney; Dakota Fanning shows why she would soon be an in demand young actress; Diane Wiest is engaging as a witness called to testify on Sam’s behalf, and Laura Dern is likable as Lucy’s potential foster parent, but the central performance is too outlandish and drags the rest of the film down.

The best thing about this movie is the performance of Brad Silverman and Joe Rosenberg as Sam’s best friends. These two gentleman suffer from mental disabilities and provide an authenticity which only further highlights the charade of Penn’s performance.

Roger Ebert’s review is spot on: it’s a competent, well-made, morally bankrupt film.

The Best of the 1980s

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The Shining (1980)

Writer Jack Torrance takes a job as a winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel which was built on a Native American burial ground. Haunted by the numerous evil spirits which populate the hotel, Jack slowly loses his mind and unsuccessfully attempts to kill his wife, Wendy and young son, Danny.

Contrary to what Mr. King expressed in the afterword to his sequel, Doctor Sleep, this is far superior to the original novel.

Many of the scenes from this harrowing descent into madness have become iconic, but none more than this:

Much has been written about the dense symbolism and imagery of Stanley Kubrik’s masterpiece, and there’s even a documentary dedicated to the numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the film.

RaidersRaiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

In 1936, archeologist Indiana Jones is summoned to help find the Ark of the Covenant before it falls into the hands of the Nazis.

Buried beneath pulpy adrenaline, the film does have something to say about faith and the supernatural, but interpreting an Indiana Jones film is like riding a roller coaster and focusing on the physics.

This movie is rolling boulders, melting faces, and pits of vipers, not metaphysical pontification.

Few actors create one iconic character in their careers; Harrison Ford did it twice in four years. Sadly, he never achieved the same heights again, but this is partially the result of unfair and unjustified expectations after his initial, unprecedented success.

George Lucas has become a popular object of derision, but Star Wars and Indiana Jones should be more than enough to secure his legacy and we should forgive him for the indulgent Howard the Duck (1986) and the less than stellar prequel films.

Annie-film

Annie (1982)

John Huston was nominated for a Razzie for Worst Director and Aileen Quinn won the Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress (odd since she was the titular character and in nearly every scene). In spite of the critical consensus, I unashamedly love this film and invariably smile when I think of it.

How could a movie directed by John Huston and starring Carol Burnett, Tim Curry, Bernadette Peters, and Albert Finney not be awesome?

I admit my adoration is informed by childhood nostalgia.  Judge me if you want, but this schmaltzy film is infectiously optimistic, and contains one of my favorite musical numbers:

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Zelig (1983)

Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) possesses a chameleon-like ability to assume the characteristics of the people around him. When he’s in Harlem, he’s a black man; when he’s in Mexico, he’s a Mexican; when he’s in a jazz club, he’s a jazz musician. During a hospitalization to cure his condition, he falls in love with his nurse (Mia Farrow).

The movie is styled like a documentary; contemporary intellectuals such as Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow offer their analysis of Zelig’s life while we view “archival” footage of him with the rich and powerful of the 1920s, including Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Carole Lombard, and Adolf Hitler.

Amazingly, eleven years before Robert Zemeckis wowed audiences with Forrest Gump, Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis covered a lot of the same ground without the benefit of sophisticated computer technology.

In this existential comedy, the story of Leonard Zelig becomes an allegory for the nature of identity: do we define ourselves or are we defined by others?

Ghostbusters_cover

Ghostbusters (1984)

Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) are struggling parapsychologists at Columbia University. When they develop a technique for trapping ghosts and supernatural beings, they become mini-celebrities, until the nefarious EPA shuts them down.  But when the evil Gozer the Gozerian threatens the existence of NYC, the ragtag, unorthodox Ghostbusters are the last best hope for the city.

This film created a genre (sci-fi comedy), propelled Bill Murray to superstardom, warned us against crossing streams, and gave us the fantastic theme song by Ray Parker, Jr.

Few films in the past thirty years have had a bigger impact on poplar culture; every science fiction film since exists in the significant shadow of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

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The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

During the Great Depression, Cecilia (Mia Farrow) goes to the movies to escape her bleak existence. When she’s watching The Purple Rose of Cairo for the umpteenth time, one of the primary characters, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels). miraculously walks out of the screen and joins her in the theater.

Tom and Cecilia fall in love, but this is complicated when Gil Shepherd, the actor playing Tom in the movie, arrives to convince him to return to the fantasy world of the film.

Drawing inspiration from Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. (1924) among others, this film asks if reality or fantasy is more important.

Movies about movies are one of my favorite motifs; movies about the Golden Age of Cinema even more so.

During his fertile collaboration with lover Mia Farrow, Woody Allen could do little wrong; this is no exception.

Little_shop_of_horrorsLittle Shop of Horrors (1986)

Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) and Audrey are coworkers at Mushnik’s Flower Shop.  The shop is struggling until Seymour showcases an unusual plant he bought from a rival Chinese florist. The only problem: this plant, which Seymour names “Audrey II,” is actually an alien which needs human blood to survive.

The movie features Steve Martin as a cruel dentist, Miriam Margoyles as his nurse, Bill Murray as his masochistic patient, and John Candy as a radio DJ.

Directed by Frank Oz, this surreal, dark comedy is an adaptation of an off-Broadway musical inspired by a 1960 film.  What sets it apart is the astounding energy in every scene. Like a bizarre children’s version of Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), this is as chaotic as Airplane! (1980), and as surreal as a Dali painting, with a catchy rock soundtrack.

It’s a tad too cynical (in the original ending, Audrey II destroys the world), but the relentless gallows humor is so infectious and irrepressible, it’s impossible not to love.

WingsofdesireposterWings of Desire (1987)

Two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, roam Berlin, watching the humans in the city and listening to their inner thoughts.

Damiel falls in love with a trapeze artist, Marion and, growing bored with infinity, renounces his immortality to be with her.

It was remade for American audiences as the more conventional City of Angels (1998), but this film is about more than the sacrifices of love. Wim Wenders creates a black and white rumination on the nature of existence with Peter Falk giving a career defining performance as a fictionalized version of himself.

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

When Marvin Acme is murdered, cartoon superstar Roger Rabbit is the primary suspect and private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) reluctantly agrees to help prove Roger’s innocence. Eventually, Valiant discovers Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) framed Roger and is secretly working to destroy Toontown and replace it with a freeway.

Robert Zemeckis (who also directed Back to the Future and Forrest Gump) has a clear talent for visually inventive films, and while technological advancements make this movie seem a little dated, it still works because its premise is every kid’s fantasy: cartoon characters are real.

As a kid, Judge Doom was my hated nemesis in one of the toughest video games I ever played. Beating him is on my video game bucket list.

If you like classic animation and have ever dreamed of seeing your beloved characters on screen together, this is a must see.

Crimes_and_misdemeanors2

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Successful ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is having an affair with Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston). When she threatens to expose their affair, he arranges for someone to kill her.

Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) is hired by his brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda) to make a documentary. During the job, he falls in love with Lester’s assistant, Halley (Mia Farrow). The finished product is a satire of Lester’s life and work and, to Cliff’s dismay, Halley announces her engagement to Lester.

Nearing the end of the second phase of Woody Allen’s career (coinciding with his relationship with Mia Farrow), this movie is a wonderfully tragi-comic interpretation of Doystoyevsky, which asks important questions about the nature of guilt and the relationship between art and commerce.

The Best of the 1970s

Little Big Man (1970)

This underlooked Dustin Hoffman gem is a brilliant revisionist Western satire with George Custer (Richard Mulligan) reimagined as a bloodthirsty villain.

It’s like Forrest Gump (1994) meets the Old West.  Just like Gump, Jack Crabb is tangentially involved in major historical events, only he’s more intelligent and self-aware than Forrest.

Arthur Penn directed the western / mobster mash-up Bonnie and Clyde (1967), then helped change public attitudes about westerns forever with this deconstruction of the genre.  After this movie, it was difficult to view a traditional John Wayne style western the same way again.

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Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Gene Wilder’s best role.  Willy Wonka is how he should be: a bit crazy, a bit cruel, but a child at heart.  Unlike the remake, this movie wisely eschews Wonka’s backstory.

Just thinking about the Golden Ticket, Grandpa Joe floating to the ceiling, Violet, Veruca, and the Oompa Loompas brings a smile to my face.

To those who say the tunnel scene is too frightening for children, I point to the long tradition of slightly scary stuff tucked in the middle of children’s themed entertainment. Some of the scenes in The Wizard of Oz must have been frightening to children in 1939. Children’s entertainment often uses mild horror as a proxy for adolescent angst.

If you’re in your 30s or younger and haven’t seen this movie, I’m not sure where you’ve been living.  Parts of it don’t hold up well, but it’s vastly superior to the Tim Burton / Johnny Depp version.

Godfather_ver1

The Godfather (1972)

There’s so much to love: every scene with Brando, the horse head, Robert Duvall, Abe Vigoda.  This movie made me fall in love with the mafia.  I’m sure the real thing is more Goodfellas (1990) and Bugsy (1991), but when I think of the mob, I see a mumbling Brando lurking in the shadows.

The rise of the mafia in the United States was a natural result of the death of the outlaw gangs of the late nineteenth century.  Whitey Bulger and John Gotti are spiritual descendants of Billy the Kid and Jesse James.

Much like the mobster succeeded the western outlaw in the beginning of the 20th century; the mobster movie succeeded the western in the late 1960s, beginning with Bonnie and Clyde (a hybrid western / gangster movie).  With The Godfather, the transition was complete and the western began its decline.  Despite occasional flashes of brilliance, the westerns of John Ford have been supplanted by the mobsters of Martin Scorsese.

ExorcistThe Exorcist (1973)

Despite its reputation, this is not a horror film, but well disguised a spiritual film which asks tough questions about faith: if you believe in God, how do you deal with evil?  Do you intellectualize it, or face it head on?

It’s one of the most honest representations of on-screen evil. Refusing to force a happy ending where the pure priest vanquishes the evil spirit makes it more special because fighting evil requires sacrifices from good people.

It holds up remarkably well. The special effects still feel organic and not cheesy.  I wish this movie were embraced in religious circles as a starting point for a dialogue about evil, its nature, and what the fight against it looks like.

HarryandtontoposterHarry and Tonto (1974)

I thought my favorite film of 1974 would be The Godfather Part II, but I’m a sucker for any film about the elderly reflecting on their life.

Art Carney is amazing in this small movie with quiet ambition.

If you’re interested in seeing who beat Pacino in The Godfather Part II for Best Actor, or if you love movies focused on people coming to terms with their mortality, this movie is for you.

One_Flew_Over_the_Cuckoo's_Nest_poster

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Jack Nicholson’s coming out party has a firm place in the American pantheon.  Every time I watch this movie I’m amazed to see Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd as patients at the mental institution and blown away Louise Fletcher didn’t make a career out of playing a cold-hearted bitch.

This movie is so bleak.  I’ve never been more angry at a film than when Billy commits suicide.

While Ken Kesey’s book makes it more clear, the film obscures the reason for McMurphy’s prison sentence: statutory rape of a 15-year-old.  Does this change your opinion of him, or whether or not he deserved his fate?

Is Milos Forman the best “not quite famous” director?  He’s a two time Academy Award winner for Best Director for this and Amadeus (1984), and he directed both The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) and Man on the Moon (1999), yet most Americans have never heard his name.

Networkmovie

Network (1976)

This is not just a move about network politics in the 1970s, but about how we view success and asks if ethics and morality matter in contemporary capitalism.  Howard Beale is one of the greatest screen characters, foreshadowing Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow.  Anger made for great television then and continues to do so today.

Dripping with the wet paint of cynicism, it doesn’t feel jaded, but earned and legitimate. The movie concludes cynicism is the only logical worldview.

It’s a shame Rocky beat it out for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but it’s an understandable debate.  However,  Beatrice Straight should never have beaten Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver (1976) in the race for Best Supporting Actress.  She was in the movie for less than six minutes while Foster’s star making role has more than withstood the test of time.  Straight rode a wave of good will for Network and walked away with an Oscar.

Sidney Lumet was the director, but this film belongs to writer Paddy Chayefsky. If you think you’re smart, or think you’re a writer, watch and marvel at what Chayefsky does.

AnniehallposterAnnie Hall (1977)

The six movies Woody Allen directed before Annie Hall are among the zaniest, silliest, and funniest movies of all time, but didn’t prepare audiences for what he unleashed in Annie Hall.

It’s a brilliant fusion of Allen’s comic persona with an honest reflection on the ups and downs of a relationship, demonstrating there is more to Allen’s schtick than hilarious one liners.

Allen has spent forty years trying to recapture the magic of this film.  He’s never quite achieved the same pinnacle again, but the movie did launch an unparalleled fifteen year of excellent movies, which was only broken by the deterioration of Allen’s relationship with Mia Farrow.

Autumn Sonata (1978)Autumn Sonata (1978)

This is a collaboration between Swedish film giants Ingrid Bergman and Ingmar Bergman.

In the final major theatrical release of Ingrid Bergman’s career, she went out with a bang as aging concert pianist, Charlotte, who’s called to visit her estranged daughter, Eva (played by Ingmar Bergman regular / sometime lover Liv Ullmann).  Charlotte was cold and distant during Eva’s formative years, focusing on her musical career instead of her family.  To add to the awkward family reunion, another daughter, paralyzed Helena, comes to live with Eva during this time.

The movie is a tour de force in dysfunctional family relationships.  It has all of the family drama of the more recent August: Osage County (2013), but doesn’t resort to cheap stunts like incest or suicide.  The characters involved are relatively normal people who made rational, albeit cold-hearted decisions based on their own self-interest.

This masterful non-romantic view of families doesn’t try to sensationalize the dysfunction, nor falsely promise familial reconciliation.  It’s Eva’s insistence on clinging to unrealistic notions of family which thwart her fulfillment.

Ingmar Bergman’s influence on twentieth century art can hardly be overstated.  His career spanned six decades and included some of the most personal and reflective films of all time.  Everyone is familiar with the chess playing grim reaper in The Seventh Seal (1957).  His other 1957 masterpiece Wild Strawberries is one of the best films focusing on an elderly man coming to terms with his life in his twilight years.    The trilogy of films: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963) offer a profound meditation on faith in a postmodern world.  Cries and Whispers (1972) is an unflinching look at the mixed emotions which accompany a loved one’s death following a long illness.

If you’re interested in seeing Ingrid Bergman as something other than Ilsa, I recommend this film, one of the most accessible of Ingmar Bergman’s films, which are often obscure and dense.

Die_BlechtrommelThe Tin Drum (1979)

Just before World War II, Oscar Matzerath, decides he will stop growing at the age of three.

Despite his increase in age and the resulting changes (including sexual awakenings), Oscar is, by all outward appearances, a child. This is how he experiences Nazism, concentration camps, the Soviets, and the American liberators.

Because the character does not age, we’re forced to filter the film through the eyes of a child.   This movie is about children forced to make adult decisions because of circumstances beyond their control, loss of innocence, and the futility of war.

The best critiques ridicule the object of their criticism.  An anti-war film is one thing, but an anti-war comedy is more effective.

Volker Schlöndorff’s adaptation of Günter Grass’s 1959 novel The Tin Drum is an audacious, surrealist, funny film, like Salvador Dali directing MASH.

This is a dark and, at times, uncomfortable, but always fascinating film.

Bad Beethoven

Beethoven (1992)

Two thieves (Oliver Platt and Stanley Tucci) attempt to steal several dogs from  a pet store.  One of them, a large St. Bernard, escapes and hides at the home of the Newtons.

The Newton children fall in love with the dog and convince their sourpuss dad, George (Charles Grodin) to keep the animal, which they name Beethoven.

Reluctantly, George warms to the animal and eventually risks his own safety to save Beethoven from an evil veterinarian (Dean Jones).

The humor is broad slapstick which doesn’t ask its audience to think; it’s a harmless movie meant for small children or people enamored with big dogs. What makes the movie interesting is the quality of the people involved with its production.

John Hughes, the master of 1980s teen angst, turned to writing kid friendly movies in the 1990s with this, the Home Alone series, Dennis the Menace (1993), 101 Dalmatians (1996) and Flubber (1997). As the 1990s came to a close, he withdrew from Hollywood and filmmaking. His late output was not sophisticated, but was infused with a refreshing sense of wonder and love, devoid of the cynicism of most modern films.

Charles Grodin is a master of deadpan exasperation. His work in The Heartbreak Kid (1972) was amazing, although the movie was a bit of a mess. He was excellent in the Warren Beatty vehicle, Heaven Can Wait (1978); and superb in the Al Brooks mockumentary, Real Life (1979). He should have become a superstar, but instead starred in a series of mostly forgettable films in the 1980s, including the bizarre The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) with Lily Tomlin, The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and Ishtar (1987). The standout film of the decade was Midnight Run (1988) co-starring Robert DeNiro. After the unexpected success of Beethoven and its sequel, Grodin left Hollywood to host a political talk show on CNBC only recently restarting his Hollywood career.

Although I feel like she was in a lot of movies, this was only the second feature film for Bonnie Hunt and when I check her filmography, she’s actually done more voice work than live action films.

Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt are two of the most versatile and respected actors in Hollywood; this film proves even the best have to start at the bottom.

It’s surreal to see Patricia Heaton and David Duchovny before their small screen work made them famous in a small role as a couple trying to swindle George.

To top off the embarrassing amount of talent involved in this schlocky kid movie, this was the debut of Joseph Gordon Levitt.

It’s not a good movie; I won’t go out of my way to watch it again, but if catch it on TV, I probably won’t change the channel.

Bad Santa (2003)

Every year Willie Stokes goes to a different city and gets a job as a department store Santa so he can rob a different shopping mall while his partner, Marcus, poses as his elf.

Stokes is a horrible person, addicted to alcohol and sex, whose increasingly erratic behavior causes a rift with Marcus.

The movie is really an excuse for Thornton to say and do outlandish things which avoids sentimentality and would have us believe the world is an evil, almost soulless, place.

Since his star making performance as Karl Childers in Sling Blade (1996) Billy Bob Thornton has developed a diverse body of work, but he’s at his best playing men with little regard for convention. A lot of people can make bad guys likable by convincing audiences their actions are a product of their tortured past. We know Michael Corleone  would have turned out differently if Apollonia hadn’t been killed. Tony Soprano’s panic attacks were, in essence, his conscience. Walter White only became an evil man because of his lung cancer diagnosis. It’s a lot harder to make audiences relate to a character like Willie Stokes, a bad man who doesn’t give a fuck, but because of Thornton’s unique charisma, we do.

Director Terry Zwigoff specializes in counterculture films about underground luminaries as Robert Crumb. This is more mainstream than Crumb (1995), and thanks to the performance of Thornton more marketable, but in a lot of ways it’s the same movie: a profile of a man whose own genius makes him unpalatable to the world at large.

This was the last film to feature John Ritter, whose legacy is fixed as Jack on Three’s Company.  Ritter wasn’t given a lot of opportunities to prove himself dramatically, but when he did, in movies like Sling Blade, he shined. He’s good here as the exasperated manager of the latest store targeted by Stokes.

Brett Kelley plays Thurman, a child Stokes takes under his wing. Kelley was surprisingly effective as a blank slate for Thorton to push his grotesque caricature to extreme levels of depravity. Sadly, Kelley’s career was never able to reach these heights again; the role of a wide-eyed innocent is best played by fresh faces.

Bernie Mac is excellent as the private investigator hired to expose Stokes; Octavia Spencer and the always delightful Chloris Leachman round out the cast.

The problem with the movie is it paints Stokes as almost unredeemable in one scene, then wants us to see him as a real-life Johnny Knoxville and attempts to humanize him via his relationship with Thurman. The ending wants to be artfully ambiguous, but winds up a muddled mess: Stokes is somewhat redeemed, but he’s still an asshole. The movie’s indecisiveness mirrors my feelings: I can’t quite recommend it, but I understand why some people would.

The Best of the 1960s

Testament of Orpheus (1960)

The final film in Jean Cocteau’s Orphic trilogy is a rumination on the nature of reality, Cocteau’s way of asking if his work and life mattered.

He plays a fictionalized version of himself and encounters characters from his previous films before he’s forced to appear in front a tribunal where he must defend his life and art.

Cocteau is not as well-known as later French filmmakers, Jean Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut, but his films introduced avant garde sensibilities and philosophical underpinnings into cinemas.  There had been earlier attempts (particularly by the Dadaists and the Surrealists), but Cocteau was the most successful at combining them with a format recognizable to moviegoers.  His films are artistic essays, but they work as films because Cocteau respected the medium on its terms. While Dali made surreal films, Cocteau made films which included surreal and philosophical elements.

Cocteau’s career spanned both World Wars and cast a shadow over the artistic and intellectual life of France for nearly half a century.  His circle of friends and acquaintances included Edith Piaf, Coco Chanel, and Marlene Dietrich. Pablo Picasso and Yul Brunner make cameos in this film.  In addition to directing, he wrote novels, poetry, and librettos for Stravinsky operas.

Cocteau is a towering figure in the development of film.  You can see his influences in the films of Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, and Christopher Nolan. He deserves more widespread recognition.

Judgment at NurembergJudgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Inspired by the Judges’ Trial, a part of the larger military tribunals after World War II used to hold surviving members of the German ruling class responsible for the war crimes committed by the Nazi regime, this movie explores the culpability of every day German citizens in Nazi atrocities. Were the judges who carried out sentences according to Nazi law wrong to do so?

Spencer Tracy is Chief Judge Dan Haywood who’s committed to a fair trial, despite pressure by the US government to go easy on the Germans so they would support US policies in the Cold War.

Burt Lancaster is Dr. Ernst Janning, a world-renowned jurist and the primary defendant in this particular tribunal. The role could have easily been played as a villain, but Lancaster shrewdly plays him as a victim, and somehow manages to make a man who helped carry out Nazi orders sympathetic.

Marlene Dietrich is Frau Bertolt, a widow of a German general executed by the Allies.  She provides a context for understanding how Germans allowed the Nazis such power.

Judy Garland is Irene Hoffman, a reluctant witness against the Germans who’s torn between loyalty to her native country, a sense of what is right, and fear of retaliation for her testimony.  Garland is excellent and once again proves she was more than a big and powerful voice.

Montgomery Clift is Rudolph Peterson, a witness for the prosecution who was forcibly sterilized by the Nazis. Clift’s life was tragically cut short and his filmography is slighter than you might expect, but he, along with Marlon Brando and James Dean popularized the naturalistic approach to acting still en vogue today.

Surprisingly in this all-star cast, the highlight is Maximilian Schell as German defense attorney Hans Rolfe.  Rolfe gives impassioned and logical pleas justifying leniency for the German judges, painting a picture of a helpless situation: the Germans were downtrodden after WWI, eugenics was at one time widely practiced, other countries had given legitimacy to the Nazis, and so on.  Schell has an unenviable task; he has to argue for the indefensible and make us momentarily believe what we know can’t be true, what every fiber of our being teaches is wrong.  Miraculously, he succeeds, and was rewarded with an Oscar for his effort.

The cast also includes a pre-Star Trek William Shatner and Werner Klemperer who would achieve greater fame playing a decidedly different Nazi: Colonel Klink.

The movie made a bold decision to show actual footage from the Russian liberation of concentration camps.  It’s one thing to see fictional representations of the horror of the Holocaust, but when you realize those are actual people, actual victims, it makes every Holocaust film since seem trite in comparison.

This movie doesn’t justify the actions of men like Janning, but it does ask if we’re sure we would do something different and ends with a powerful reminder of the duty each of us has to ensure justice is carried out.  The convicted Janning argues since he never intended for so many innocents to be slaughtered he shouldn’t be held accountable.  Haywood retorts, “Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”  Failure to do what you know to be right is a tacit endorsement of what you know to be wrong.

The Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

US Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) comes to Shinbone to attend the funeral of rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne).  Once he arrives in town, a local reporter asks the senator why he traveled so far to pay respects to such an insignificant person.

As explanation, Stoddard tells the story of when he first moved to Shinbone as an idealistic attorney and ran afoul of outlaw Liberty Valance.  The pacifist Stoddard was unwilling to use violence to combat Valance, despite the protests of local ranchers, including Tom Doniphon.

Stoddard believed in the power of strong ideals, while Doniphon believed it was important to project strength, fighting violence with violence.  In addition to their opposing worldviews, Stoddard and Doniphon pursued the affection of the same girl, Hattie (Vera Miles).

Eventually, Stoddard and Valance confronted each other in a shootout and Valance was murdered. The fame which accompanied killing such a notorious outlaw propelled Stoddard to a storied political career, but in reality Doniphon killed Valance to protect Stoddard, because he realized Hattie loved him. Stoddard may have been right to eschew violence, but he owes Doniphon his life.

Despite their lengthy and iconic careers, this was the first film to feature John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.

The popular image of John Wayne is a larger than life crusader, always on the side of the good guys, but in many of his most beloved films such as Red River (1948) and The Searchers (1956), Wayne played a corrupt or semi-corrupt pragmatist motivated by self-interest.

Jimmy Stewart’s image has likewise been whitewashed by nostalgia. We think of him as representative of a certain attitude and era, wholesome and clean-cut. While this is certainly true in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), his later work in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and The Anatomy of a Murder (1960) was much more complex and ambiguous.

In addition to Wayne and Stewart, the film features a bevy of character actors famous for their parts in Western films: Andy Devine, Woody Strode, Strother Martin, and Lee van Cleef, and Liberty Valance was masterfully played by Lee Marvin who radiated warmth even when playing such an evil character.  We hate Valance, but we’re captivated by him.

In an ironic twist, one of the chief 20th century progenitors of the mythology of the American West, John Ford, directed one of the first and best deconstructions of popular misconceptions about the era.  Without this movie, later “revisionist” Westerns such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969) or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) would not exist.

Winter Light (1963)Winter Light (1963)

This is the second part of Ingmar Bergman’s spiritual trilogy which included Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Silence (1963).

After serving in the Spanish Civil War, pastor Tomas Ericsson was unable to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the atrocities he witnessed. His faith since has been a perfunctory show; a job, not a calling.

He’s confronted by his former lover Marta who still has feelings for him and cannot understand why he doesn’t reciprocate them.  His parishioner Jonas (played by Bergman regular Max von Sydow) is filled with dread after learning China has tested a nuclear bomb.  When Tomas is unable to adequately assuage his concerns, Jonas commits suicide.

The movie offers a challenging, pessimistic view of traditional Christian morality, but ends with a glimmer of hope. Tomas refuses to cancel his afternoon service despite only one person showing up, suggesting even a tiny amount of faith deserves our respect and attention.

Bergman is one of the most philosophical filmmakers who makes deeply personal films which explore unanswerable questions and the inner workings of the soul.

I am Cuba (1964)I am Cuba (1964)

Mikhail Kalatoz’s 1964 film about life in Cuba during the Castro revolution was financed as communist propaganda, but immediately  suppressed by dissatisfied Soviet and Cuban officials; it was unknown in the western world until 1995, twenty years after Kalatoz died.

Split into four separate stories joined only by a female narrator known as the “Voice of Cuba,” the film offers a dizzying view of Cuban life during the Revolution.

In the first story, Maria works as a dancer in a Havana bar frequented by rich Americans and lives an idyllic existence with her fruitseller boyfriend, Rene, until one morning when Rene comes home to find an American businessman dressing, cavalierly tossing money at Maria on his way out.

In the second story, Pedro’s landlord has sold out to a conglomerate.  When Pedro is told he will have to leave his home, he burns the land and inadvertently dies of smoke inhalation.

In the third story, student protestors clash with police and one of the demonstrators is killed.  In a transcendent scene, the camera follows the coffin of the martyred protestor through the streets.

In the final story, a small farmer is reluctant to join the revolution, but changes his mind after witnessing the violence forced upon his homeland.

Putting aside its obvious politics, this is a beautiful film.  Of course it’s a little too sympathetic to the communist cause, but watching it demonstrates why communism and the promises of socialism were so appealing to the people of Cuba.  If this is the life they lived; no wonder they were willing to embrace a philosophy which promised equality.

A Thousand Clows (1965)A Thousand Clowns (1965)

Murray Burns (Jason Robards), an unemployed writer raising the son of his deceased sister, is a delightful iconoclast who doesn’t think work should be all-consuming. He believes people only find identity in their jobs to distract them from more important questions.

Robards is hysterical; it’s a shame he spent so much of his career in serious theater (particularly the works of sourpuss Eugene O’Neill).

Martin Balsam is most famous as Milton Argobast in Psycho (1960), but he won an Oscar as Burns’s more pragmatic brother and the dialogue between the two of them is a master class in the real world effects of unchecked idealism.

I love this movie because it somehow maintains the energy of the zaniest scene of the Marx Bothers career through an entire film.

No one wants to work. We’d all rather pursue those things which interest us, but as Arnold Burns reminds us, if everyone followed this philosophy, there’d be a lot of hungry people.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

George (Richard Burton), an associate history professor, is married to Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), the daughter of the college president.

Martha invites a new professor at the college, Nick (George Segal) and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) over for some late night drinks where George and Martha proceed to engage in a series of humiliating “games” in front of their guests, exposing fractures and difficulties in both relationships.

The movie builds to a pair of devastating discoveries. George and Martha couldn’t conceive and created a fictional child for the sake of their relationship. Nick married Honey because he thought she was pregnant, only to find it was a hysterical pregnancy.  Nick is resentful, but doesn’t know the truth: Honey was pregnant, but terminated her pregnancy.

Nick and Honey are what Martha and George must have been like twenty years earlier: idealistic, naively believing they could overcome the imperfections in their relationship by lying.

What makes this movie special is the real, stormy relationship between Burton and Taylor. It’s easy to imagine George and Martha as somehow providing a window into their personal lives.

This was a turning point in Elizabeth Taylor’s career. Before this film, she was known as one of the most gorgeous women in Hollywood, but when she gained thirty pounds to play the ugly Martha, it was impossible to dismiss her as simply a beautiful face.

This powerful adaptation of Edward Albee’s play advocates for honesty, while acknowledging even the best relationships incorporate little lies to make things function more smoothly. A wife deludes her husband into thinking he’s as attractive as he was when they first met. A husband doesn’t tell his wife he hates her cooking. But the movie patiently reminds us the bigger the lie, the bigger the fallout if, and when, it’s exposed.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Joanna Drayton comes home unexpectedly to announce to her parents, publisher Matt (Spencer Tracy) and art gallery owner Christina (Katharine Hepburn) she’s getting married to John (Syndey Poitier).  Joanna’s progressive parents have always taught her race should not be a determinate in how you treat other people, but their theoretical posturing is put to the test when they realize their little girl is going to marry a black man.

In 1967, this was cutting edge, but now it seems dated; most of the film’s major concerns were worked out years ago. However, it remains important as a reminder there was a time when serious, fair-minded people had reservations about interracial relationships.

But I don’t love this movie because of its importance to the history of race relations in America. I love it because it’s the last film to feature Spencer Tracy who died less than a month after filming ended. You can sense Tracy’s struggle with mortality in his performance; you can feel Katharine Hepburn’s pride and sadness.  The pain and loss of the two leads creates a beautiful film about dying and grief underneath the surface of this film about the travails of racism in late 1960s America.

The Lion in Winter (1968)The Lion in Winter (1968)

During the Christmas of 1183, Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole) contemplates the plans for succession after he dies. He wants his youngest son, John, to inherit the throne, while his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) wants their oldest son, Richard the Lionheart (Anthony Hopkins) to be the next King of England. Henry makes no attempt to hide his numerous infidelities or his disdain for Eleanor. She uses her previous position as wife of the King of France to antagonize Henry.

The film is noteworthy for its surprisingly modern treatment of Richard the Lionheart’s homosexuality.

Watch this, then watch Charly (1968), which featured an Academy Award winning performance from Cliff Roberston, and you realize the extent of the travesty which denied O’Toole an Oscar despite a record eight nominations.

Despite her initial success, Katharine Hepburn was labeled as “box office” poison at the end of the 1930s, but with this film she won her second consecutive Oscar and third overall, cementing her reputation as one of the best actresses of all time.

This brilliant film about the intersection of politics and personal relationships should be viewed alongside Becket (1964).  In the earlier film, Peter O’ Toole plays a young Henry II as he creates a legacy.  Four years later, he plays an older Henry II looking to ensure his legacy is preserved.

Army of Shadows (1969)Army of Shadows (1969)

With this unsympathetic view of the French resistance during World War II, Jean-Pierre Melville creates a drama as morally ambiguous as 24, but not nearly as outrageous.

To those in the French Resistance, secrets were the lifeblood of the cause; the leaders of the movement routinely killed those suspected of betrayal with little regard for the legitimacy of the accusation. The highest moral imperative was to keep France from falling completely under the control of the Nazis. Everything else: allegiances, morality, and friendship was subservient.

The movie walks an interesting line, glorifying the men who risked (and often lost) their lives to protect France from Nazism, but refusing to whitewash their actions. The movie, like the movement, has already decided their actions were justified and doesn’t feel the need to persuade anyone.

It’s chilling to watch people kill one another for coldly rational reasons, but we find ourselves nodding our heads. This sort of moral complicity has been explored in American television shows like The Sopranos, The Shield, and Breaking Bad, but while we enjoyed living vicariously through the misdeeds of Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, and Walter White, we never forgot they were bad people.

But, in this movie, it’s the good guys who have little regard for the lives of their friends and compatriots. It’s uncomfortable, but speaks important truths: we believe in doing right and living by a strict moral code in theory, but in practice this is often more difficult than it seems, and we’re more lenient than we want to believe.

That Bittter Bastard Elaine makes an interesting Gambit

The Bitter Tear of General Yen (1933)

Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) comes to Shanghai at the height of the Chinese Civil War to marry her childhood sweetheart, missionary Dr. Robert Strike. When Strike is called away to aid an orphanage, Megan goes with him.  On their way, they seek the help of a powerful Chinese warlord, General Yen, who gives them a piece of paper which will provide safe passage.

They rescue the orphans, but at a checkpoint, discover the paper Yen gave them is worthless.  In the ensuing chaos, Strike and Megan are knocked unconscious and separated. When Megan awakes, she’s being held captive by General Yen.  Through a series of contrived circumstances, they inexplicably develop feelings for one another. When Yen is betrayed by his concubine, Megan comforts him and promises to stay by his side, but the disgraced Yen commits suicide.

I’m a Barbara Stanwyck fan, put I prefer her in screwball comedies like The Lady Eve (1941), Meet John Doe (1941), or Ball of Fire (1941) or her deliciously evil role in the film noir classic, Double Indemnity (1944). Stanwyck is a lot of things, but a credible damsel in distress is not one of them.

This film was the first film to play at Radio City Music Hall, but its controversial depiction of interracial romance caused the theater to pull it after only eight days. The film’s commercial failure caused Capra to shy away from controversial films and focus on optimistic, crowd pleasing fare such as It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

This is an okay melodrama, but it’s too contrived. The relationship between Megan and Yen is not earned and feels like a gratuitous attempt to titillate.  It’s worth watching, but it’s not amongst Capra’s best.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2013)

Watching this documentary about the last years of Elaine Stritch’s life, it’s easy to see her role in 30 Rock, as Colleen, Jack Donaghy’s mother, as an extension of her own personality.

She’s a feisty, brutally honest old woman. She’s vain, demanding, mean, and scared of dying. She’s inconsistent, in one scene, she discusses her alcoholism, and vows to stop drinking to preserve her health, five scenes later she’s justifying why she deserves a drink.

Over eighty years old, she still gets nervous before a performance; rehearsals are often unpleasant and difficult.

Yet somehow, when she takes the stage, none of it matters. She’s electric, and nearing the end of her life, still commands an audience, making the hassle of dealing with her numerous eccentricities somehow more than worth it.

Today’s stars are poll-tested and micromanaged with ghost writers for their Twitter accounts, Elaine Stritch represents a dying breed: a performer more concerned about her art than her image.

Gambit (2012)

Plotting revenge against his demanding boss, Lord Shabandar (Alan Rickman), art curator Harry Deane (Colin Firth) stages an elaborate ruse to trick Shabandar into buying a forgery of a Monet painting, recruiting a Texas rodeo queen, PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz) to aid in the deception.

Thanks to the surprisingly fresh chemistry between Firth and Diaz and solid supporting work from Rickman and Stanley Tucci, the movie made me chuckle more than I thought it would and left me with a smile on my face.

It’s a delightful, fun caper film, like a trashier version ofThe Thomas Crown Affair (1999). In fact, I enjoyed this remake of 1966 film more than the original, despite my love of its stars Michael Caine and Shirley Maclaine.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)

This Netflix original documentary tells the unbelievable story of B-actor Bing Russell’s ownership of the Portland Mavericks, a minor league baseball team.

Bing’s fame as an actor has been eclipsed by his son, Kurt, but he had a respactable career with recurring roles in western TV shows Bonanza and Rawhide. WhenBonanza was cancelled in 1973, Bing pursued his lifelong dream of a career in baseball by purchasing the Portland Mavericks.

As the last minor league team not owned or affiliated with a major league club, Bing had to find creative ways to finance his team and instituted unorthodox practices to remain competitive without a major league farm system to provide him with players.

He invited every rejected or washed up major leaguer (including infamous Yankee Jim Bouton) to try out for his team. If they wanted to play, they were welcome in his clubhouse.

For a four-year period, the team was a Pacific Northwest phenomenon, smashing attendance records and almost winning the championship, but Major League Baseball felt threatened by Bing’s success and conspired to defeat him.  Eventually, the power brokers in baseball used archaic rules to force Bing to sell the club.

This is a fun, enthusiastic film about pursuing your passion in spite of incredible odds.

Homefront (2013)

Undercover DEA agent Phil Broker (Jason Statham) narrowly escapes when his identity is exposed, and, disillusioned with the violent nature of his work, quits his job.

Two years later, he moves with his daughter to the hometown of his deceased wife. When his daughter gets into a fight at school, the child’s mother (Kate Bosworth) convinces her drug dealing brother Gator (James Franco) to help extract revenge on Broker’s family. When Gator discovers Broker was the undercover agent responsible for druglord Danny T’s arrest, he tries to kill Broker to curry favor with other members of the criminal underworld.

Written by Sylvester Stallone, the screenplay is a soulless exercise in derivative action pieces. It’s not enough to watch someone in danger, we need to care if they escape the danger or not.  With no emotional stakes in the film, I did not.

Jason Statham is a very good action star, in the tradition of Jean Claude van Dame or Steven Segal, but hasn’t been able to make the leap to the next level like Bruce Willis, The Rock, or even Vin Diesel. Statham is good at beating people up, he’s not good at making audiences like him.

Kate Bosworth is a particular favorite of Kevin Spacey, starring opposite him in Beyond the Sea (2004), Superman Returns (2006) and 21 (2008). She’s been given every opportunity to prove she should be considered a big name actress, but she cannot command a movie. At this point in her career, she’s best suited in a low-key supporting role. She may very well be the best thing about this movie.

Despite his role in Sam Rami’s Spider-man trilogy, I don’t think of James Franco as an action movie star. He’s completely miscast as Gator. It feels like this is the type of movie he and his hipster stoner friends would watch ironically, and his performance reinforces the idea he sees this movie as a joke.

What the hell is Winona Ryder doing in this movie? It’s like the producers decided to set the gold standard for miscasting. She’s slightly better than I anticipated, but this is not a good fit for her. She needs to be in quirky independent films or period dramas, not action movies about meth dealers.

This is throwback movie, an attempt to recreate the genre Stallone excelled at in the mid 1980s. The problem is, movie going tastes have changed a lot in the past thirty years, but you get the sense Stallone wrote this thirty years ago and has been trying to get it made since. He waited too long.

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

In the mid 1930s, Celestine goes to work as a maid at a country chateau, where she discovers everyone is obsessed with sex: the owner is a serial philanderer, his wife suffers from dyspareunia; the wife’s father collects boots and has women model them.

After the elderly father dies, Celestine plans to quit her job but when a local girl from the village is found dead following a sexual assault, Celestine decides to stay until the perpetrator is brought to justice. Suspecting Joseph, her fellow servant (and a right-wing zealot), she seduces him, hoping to persuade him to admit his guilt. When this fails, she frames him for the murder, but his arrest is short-lived due to “insufficient evidence,” which Celestine suspects is because of his political connections.

Celestine marries the neighbor to the estate, and the movie ends with a right-wing rally in Cherbourg.

This film is a major departure for director Luis Bunuel. His earlier films, including his famed collaboration with Salvdaor Dali, were surrealist experiments, but from this point forward, his films became political, focused on the way sexuality and politics influenced each other.

You’d think films about sexual politics would be interesting, but this one is not.

Hallelujah, I’m a Grand, Invisible Immigrant

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

A young girl goes to the grave of her favorite author and reads a chapter from his memoir.  In this excerpt, the author (Tom Wilkinson) recounts a trip he took to the Grand Budapest Hotel in  1968 where he (Jude Law) finds the hotel in a dilapidated condition and meets the owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), to find out what happened to the once luxurious hotel. This prompts Moustafa to tell the story of Monsieur H (Ralph Fiennes) who was accused of murdering a wealthy patron in 1932 after it was discovered she  bequeathed a valuable painting to him.

This Russian nesting doll is a movie about cultural memory. When we hear our parents talking about their childhood or a family story about our great-grandparents, we’re relying on the experiences of others to provide us with context for our lives, and in turn we’re expected to keep the story alive for future generations.

Ralph Fiennes starred as two of the most iconic villains of the past 25 years: Lord Voldemort and Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List (1993); He’s good in Quiz Show (1994), The English Patient  (1996), and  In Bruges (2008).  Despite his impressive career, this is his most endearing role. Channeling Groucho Marx in a high energy, fast-talking whirlwind, he carries the movie; the rest of the cast are satellites revolving around his central performance.

Tony Revolori is young Zero Moustafa, Monsier’s H’s protégée and friend. He’s a dimwitted, naive young man, overwhelmed by the pace and breadth of his mentor’s knowledge.  Revolori’s job is to look confused and provide a launching pad for the performance of Fiennes.

Saorise Ronan is enchanting as Zero’s love interest.  Only 20 years old, she’s not quite a household name, but with stellar performances in Atonement (2007) and The Lovely Bones (2009), she’s given every indication she’ll be a force to be reckoned with for a long time.

Wilhelm Dafoe is perfectly cast as a creepy assassin hired to take out H, Adrien Brody gives one of his better performances as the chief antagonist, and, based on his performance here and in Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Ed Norton seems to have found a home for his talents in his collaborations with Anderson.

Frequent Wes Anderson players Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton , and Bob Balaban round out the cast.

Since 2001, the sophisticated whimsy Anderson unleashed in Tenebaums has become ubiquitous, co-opted by numerous films and filmmakers looking for an edgy or independent aesthetic. Since audiences have finally caught up with his sensibilities, this film may prove to be a turning point in Anderson’s career pushing him to greater heights and mainstream success, but it’s not his best film.

The Invisible Woman (2013)

Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in this film about Charles Dickens’s affair with Nelly Ternan.

Dickens was 45 when he met 18-year-old Ellen Terman and cast her in a Wilkie Collins play he was producing. Bored with his wife of 22 years, the younger Terman challenged Dickens intellectually and they began a an affair which lasted until his death in 1870.

It’s an intriguing look at the private life of one of literature’s most recognizable names.  Everyone knows Charles Dickens (although I suspect fewer and fewer have actually read his work).  We know him as a standard of great literature akin to a more recent Shakespeare, but we know little about the man.

Fiennes does a good job, but the story is pedestrian.  A famous married man fell in love with a younger woman; this is not necessarily worthy of a big film treatment. When the movie does come close to showing some insight into the mind of the great author it quickly reorients towards the sordid private life of one of Victorian Britain’s most famous individuals. The better story is what motivated him to write, and what he thought, but sadly we get the story of his libido.

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933)

This is bizarre paean to left-leaning politics as espoused by the happy bums in Central Park, who live in a carefree world unconcerned about money or the source of their next meal because they’re too busy singing and dancing and laughing.

Al Jolson is Bumper, one of the leaders of this cadre of New York City’s unemployed. His friends include Egghead (silent star Harry Langdon) who foretells of the impending socialist revolution and Acorn (African-American actor Edgar Connor). For some unexplained reason, Bumper and pals are on friendly terms with mayor John Hastings (Frank Morgan).

When the mayor’s younger girlfriend, June, attempts suicide by throwing herself off a bridge, she’s rescued by Bumper. When she awakens, she has amnesia and falls in love with her rescuer, who reciprocates her feelings. The plot becomes a tangled web of misdirected love like Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or As You Like It.

Did I mention this is a musical by famed Broadway duo Rodgers and Hart?

Lewis Milestone is rarely named amongst the greatest directors, but in a career spanning nearly 40 years, he won two Oscars and directed such legendary films as The Front Page (1931), Of Mice and Men (1939), Ocean’s 11  (1960) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).  He was one of the first silent film directors to effectively transition to talkies because he understood how synchronized sound allowed more fluid camera movement.

Al Jolson was an early 20th century phenomenon. He was to our great-grandparents what Elvis was to our grandparents and The Beatles were to our parents. Yet today, he’s known almost exclusively as the first person to talk in movies. This movie provides an opportunity to see him outside The Jazz Singer (1927).

It’s fun to see Frank Morgan as something other than the titular Wizard of Oz, although there’s little doubt the latter film is his greatest accomplishment.

Released at the height of Great Depression, this celebratory film suggests the evils of the world would fade away if we abandoned consumerism and would have us believe the titular bums, homeless in Central Park, are better off than those who live comfortable middle class lives in the City. It’s such a bizarre piece of left-leaning propaganda as to render it almost complete ineffective, but it is a curiously entertaining film.

The Immigrant (2013)

In 1921, Polish immigrants Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda come to New York via Ellis Island. When Magda is quarantined due to illness, Ewa is alone and scared of deportation until Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) bribes an officer to let her stay.

Bruno uses her desperation to convince Ewa to join his stable of prostitutes.  Ewa meets illusionist Emil (Jeremy Renner) and when they begin a romantic relationship, Bruno and Emil fight for her affection. There’s an inadvertent murder, a coverup, a betrayal, a mea culpa, and an escape.

Since her Oscar-winning role as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2007) brought her to the attention of English audiences, Cotilliard has had high profile roles in Inception (2010), Midnight in Paris (2011) and Dark Knight Rises (2012), but her best work is her least seen: Rust and Bone (2012), a bleak film in which she plays a paraplegic whale trainer.

Joaquin Phoenix is an incredibly versatile actor, but his public persona was fixed when he played a fictionalized version of himself in the mockumentary / elaborate prank I’m Still Here (2010) directed by his brother-in-law Casey Affleck. The movie was horrendous and his appearance on Late Show with David Letterman as part of the stunt became a public relations disaster. Now he’s seen as a troubled man who struggles with his personal demons. In a conscientious attempt to change his image, he’s been extremely choosy about his roles since.

Jeremy Renner is a fine actor when challenged in films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), The Hurt Locker (2008), and The Town (2010), but since he was cast as Hawkeye in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, his career has focused on action oriented blockbusters. This has provided him with a comfortable income, but he doesn’t stand out in them.

This is a good film about the struggles which accompany opportunity. Ewa’s difficulties mirror those of millions of other immigrants to America in the first part of the twentieth century, but this film cynically suggests turn of the century New York welcomed those immigrants with corruption and evil at every turn.