Summer Under The Stars Viewing Guide: 8/18-8/24

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It’s hard to believe we’re over halfway through the TCM Summer Under The Stars festival. Best to cram in as much great viewing as possible the last few weeks. Here’s my viewing guide for this week.

8/18: Audrey Hepburn

There is a plethora of great movies on Audrey Hepburn’s day. You have My Fair LadyFunny FaceCharade, etc. But my pick for her SUTS day is a thriller she made called Wait Until Dark. Hepburn is so convincingly vulnerable that every second she’s is danger is agonizing. The third act is one of the best ever filmed for a thriller. And Alan Arkin is at his best playing the maniacal villain.

8/19: Buster Keaton

Before I offer my pick for Buster Keaton day, just let me say this. Watch as many of his films as you possibly can. The man was a genius. He pulled off stunts that I still can’t believe were possible in the early days of cinema. That being said, my selection is The General. There’s some amazing stunt work with a train at the end that will blow your mind.

8/20: Dorothy McGuire

For the SUTS day dedicated to Dorothy McGuire, I recommend A Summer Place. Is it melodramatic at times? Yes. Is it a bit of a soap opera? Yes. But it’s a very entertaining soap opera. And it’s also just a great movie to watch during the summertime. Plus it gives Sandra Dee an opportunity to really showcase her acting chops. Dee was capable of playing more than just cookie cutter good girls.

8/21: Joel McCrea

Joel McCrea is a person whose SUTS day I marked on my calendar as soon as the schedule was released. He was equally capable at doing dramas and screwball comedies. And it’s a screwball comedy that I have chosen. It’s Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. McCrea plays a Hollywood director whose fed up with making the same, predictable happy movies over and over. He disguises himself as a hobo and goes out into the world to learn about suffering. Along the way he teams up with Veronica Lake. For a screwball comedy, Sullivan’s Travels has a lot of insight and heart. It’s one of the deepest comedies you will ever see.

8/22: Leila Hyams

Leila Hyams is a first year SUTS honoree. And for her day, I recommend Tod Browning’s cult classic Freaks. It tells the backstage drama of a troupe of circus performers. Trapeze artist Cleopatra takes an interest in sideshow performer Hans. But it turns out she’s less interested in Hans than she is in Hans’ money. Freaks is weird, challenging and one of the most compelling cult movies I have ever seen.

8/23: Fred Astaire

If you love movies with great dancing, then you’re going to love day 23 of Summer Under The Stars. That day is devoted to the one and only Fred Astaire. I know it’s predictable to pick an Astaire and Rogers movie. But my favorite pairing of their is in the lineup. It’s Top Hat. Along with the great title number, Top Hat features Cheek to Cheek. That’s the number Rogers filmed in the infamous feather dress. The formula for Top Hat is the same as the other pairings of Astaire and Rogers pictures. They annoy each other at first. Then they fall in love and there’s some great dancing along the way. But Top Hat just has a special charm to me. Part of that I think is because it has some of the best songs of any of their movies. And that’s saying something.

8/24: Shirley MacLaine

Shirley MacLaine is an actress that I still don’t think gets enough credit for how versatile she is. She can do melodramatic comedies like Steel Magnolias, dramas like Terms of Endearment…and she can also sing and dance. That is range! So my selection for her SUTS day is Sweet Charity. MacClaine’s character is a taxi driver who stays optimistic, despite life, especially her love life, constantly disappointing her. The movie was also directed by theater legend Bob Fosse and features costumes designed by Edith Head. It earned a few Oscar nominations. But it still deserves more recognition.

Happy viewing!

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Summer Under The Stars Viewing Guide: 8/11-8/17

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We’re almost into week two of TCM’s Summer Under The Stars Festival. I hope you’re enjoying time with new honorees as well as old favorites. Here are my viewing suggestions for week 2.

8/11: Humphrey Bogart

Regular readers of this blog know that Bogie is my favorite actor ever. I circled his day on my calendar right away. Truthfully there’s not a bad film to watch on his SUTS day. But if you twist my arm and make me pick just one movie to watch that day, I will recommend The African Queen. The story of the film’s production is almost as entertaining as the film itself. It gave Bogart the opportunity to act opposite another screen legend (Katharine Hepburn) and it earned  him a long overdue Oscar.

8/12: Ann Sothern

Ann Sothern may have made a name for herself with the films where she played Maisie. But my selection for her SUTS day is a film noir that was way ahead of it’s time: The Blue Gardenia. Sothern plays one of Anne Baxter’s roommates. The Blue Gardenia deals frankly with sexual assault (in this case an attempted sexual assault) and the impact it has on the victim. Bonus? The villain is played by Raymond Burr. Before he made a name for himself as good guy Perry Mason, he played a lot of scumbags in noir films.

8/13: Brian Donlevy

For the SUTS day devoted to Brian Donlevy, I really went back and forth. Part of me wanted to go with Impact!. There’s also The Glass KeyBeau Geste, and many other quality options. But I went with a cult science fiction film instead. My choice is The Quatermass Xperiment. In it, Donlevy plays Bernard Quatermass, a scientist who is the head of the British science programme. In The Quatermass Xperiment, Quatermass’ manned rocket ship returns to Earth. But two of the astronauts are missing and the one survivor appears ill and can no longer communicate. Not only that, but the survivor starts to slowly transform into a monster. It’s an intriguing story with some solid early science fiction special effects.

8/14: Liv Ullmann

Liv Ullmann has quite a few great movies to choose from on her day. But my choice is the Ingmar Bergman classic Persona. Ullmann’s character, Elisabet, is an actress who mysteriously goes mute one day while performing on stage. She is nearly catatonic the next day. There is no medical reason for what’s wrong with her. Elisabet is put in the care of a nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson).  During their time together, Alma ends up telling Elisabet her life story and Elisabet’s therapy sessions turn out to be therapy sessions for Alma. Describing this film makes it sound boring. But it’s not. It’s a fascinating character study.

8/15: Rod Steiger

Rod Steiger is a first time SUTS honoree in 2019. And for his day I have to recommend Norman Jewison’s In The Heat Of The Night. While the film is most famous for Sidney Poitier’s iconic character of Virgil Tibbs, Steiger has plenty of moments to shine as well. Steiger plays Gillespie, a seemingly on the surface stereotypical southern police officer. But there’s much more to Gillespie than meets the eye. Poitier and Steiger have wonderful chemistry together. And the movie doesn’t shy away from tackling the issue of racism. It’s just as powerful 51 years after its release.

8/16: Irene Dunne

Irene Dunne was one of the great firebrand women of the 30s. Perhaps my favorite movie of hers is the screwball comedy The Awful Truth. Dunne and Cary Grant play a married couple that begins divorce proceedings based merely on suspicion. Once the divorce is finalized, they each go to insane lengths to ruin the other’s chance to get remarried. My favorite subplot is how Grant demands visitation rights so he can see the couple’s dog. The dog would later play Asta in The Thin Man.

8/17: Errol Flynn

Errol Flynn is best known for his swashbuckling movies. And while I adore both Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, I have to go with the movie that solidified his status as a swashbuckling legend: The Adventures of Robin Hood. Shot in vibrant technicolor, Flynn dazzles as the title character who is a tireless warrior of the people. And Flynn isn’t the only icon in this picture. There’s Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone and even Claude Rains! If you love a good sword fight and a rollicking adventure, then you can’t do much better than The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Enjoy all the great viewing of week two!

 

Summer Under The Stars Viewing Guide: 8/5-8/10

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August is upon us. And with that comes the Summer Under The Stars Festival on Turner Classic Movies. Each day a different star is featured for 24 hours. With so many movies to choose from each day, I figured I would give some recommendations to get you started. So, without further adieu, here is my viewing guide for the first full week.

8/5: Melvyn Douglas

This year Melvyn Douglas is being honored for the first time. This is long overdue! If you watch one movie on his SUTS day, make it Ninotchka. Featuring not just the charismatic Douglas, but a brilliant comedic performance by Greta Garbo, this is one of the sharpest screwball comedies ever made. It also features the famous scene where Douglas gets Garbo to laugh. My bonus pick that day is Being There, a brilliant political satire that is particularly relevant in our current political climate. Douglas gets to share the screen with comedic legend Peter Sellers.

8/6: Lena Horne

Tuesday is devoted to Lena Horne, a woman decades ahead of her time. An actress as well as a singer/dancer/civil rights activist, Horne left quite a mark on society and popular culture. For the day dedicated to her, I would recommend Stormy Weather. It not only showcases Lena Horne, but many other prominent African American entertainers of the time. The plot is thin. It involves Bill Williamson (legendary tap dancer Bill Robinson) reminiscing about his career. The film is then a retrospective of performances that allows us to see Horne and Robinson, as well as the Nicholas Brothers, Fats Waller, and Cab Calloway. It’s a great showcase for talents that weren’t appreciated enough at the time.

8/7: James Stewart

On Wednesday we get 24 hours of iconic everyman James Stewart. I have to be honest. Any film of his you turn on will be worth your time. He was that great of an actor. But if you have time for only one, I recommend the good-hearted comedy Harvey. According to Internet Movie Database, Stewart stated in many interviews that the character of Elwood P. Dowd was his favorite character. Elwood is an alcoholic (although we very rarely see him drinking because of the production code) whose best friend is an imaginary large rabbit named Harvey. Everyone around him thinks he’s crazy. And some of his family members try to get him locked up. But Stewart makes the cooky character lovable and the most observant character in the movie. It’s fascinating how he sees what others don’t, despite the fact that he’s painted as the crazy one. Harvey is as quirky as it is touching and hilarious.

8/8: Ava Gardner

Thursday is a marathon of Ava Gardner movies. While her career was short, she made some solid movies while she could. The cream of the crop is the film noir classic The Killers. It’s here that Gardner proves to be much more than just a pretty face. In Kitty Collins, Gardner creates one of the greatest femme fatales in the history of the genre. Her chemistry with Burt Lancaster is fantastic, which makes the movie all the more compelling. Add to that the brilliant direction of film noir veteran Robert Siodmak, and you’ve got a potent mystery that you can’t turn away from.

8/9: Red Skelton

I have to be completely honest. Red Skeleton has never been my cup of tea. That being said, I do admire Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban. So my pick for Skeleton’s day is Neptune’s Daughter. It’s a screwball comedy where Williams plays a swimsuit fashion designer who wants to protect her scatterbrained sister from getting her heart broken by a South American heartthrob (Ricardo Montalban). Williams mistakes Skelton for the the heartthrob. And Skelton goes along with it. But then she meets the real thing. Williams ends up falling in love with Montalban. There are a few good gags along the way. It’s not the greatest movie ever made. But if you want a good diversion, it will do the trick.

8/10: Rita Moreno

Another first time honoree this year is the multi-talented Rita Moreno. I’m honestly surprised honoring someone of her caliber has taken this long. But better late than never. My pick that day is the film that won her an Oscar: West Side Story. It’s an iconic movie musical and for good reason. While Natalie Wood may have gotten top billing, it’s Moreno along with George Chakiris who steal the show. Moreno plays Anita, sister to Maria (Wood) and girlfriend to Bernardo (Chakiris), who is also the leader of the gang known as the Sharks. You know the story by now. It’s a modern take on Romeo and Juliet with the waring families being replaced by the rival gangs of the Jets and the Sharks. Moreno stands out because of her acting chops as well as her killer dance moves. Here we get to see that Moreno is a triple threat: a singer, dancer and actress. Anita could not have been cast any better. Moreno is absolutely mesmerizing. You real feel everything is happening to her, both the good and the tragic. It’s a brilliant performance.

That’s my guide to week one! See you next week.

Landmark Science Fiction Movies: Solaris

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This is the last week of my look at landmark science fiction movies. For my final blog entry of the month, I have chosen a science fiction movie that people likely have seen the remake of but not the original. The movie is Solaris. While the 2002 remake is certainly a quality remake in its own right, I will be focusing on the 1972 version. While many of the movies I have focused on this month have dealt with alien invasions and been filled with ray gun fights, this movie has neither of those. Instead, Solaris is a moody psychological thriller set on a space station. And it’s one of the best movies of that kind ever made.

Solaris follows psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis). Kelvin spends one more day on Earth with his father (Nikolai Grinko) and retired pilot friend Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) before heading into space. He is being sent into space to evaluate whether or not a space station should continue to study the oceanic planet Solaris. It is revealed that Berton was working on the station years ago, but was sent back after seeing a child standing on the surface of the water. Berton’s experience was written off as  hallucination by scientists. But now the remaining crew on the space station are reporting similar occurrences.

Kelvin arrives on the space station and finds it in complete disarray. And none of the three remaining crew members are there to greet him. Even more disturbing, a friend of his who was on the station committed suicide and left him a bizarre farewell video message warning him about the station. There are now two other crew members left: Snaut (Juri Jarvet) and Sartorious (Anatoliy Solonitsyn).

Things only get stranger from there. After a rough night’s sleep, Kelvin wakes up to find his dead wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) in his quarters. And Hari has no idea how she got there. Kelvin launches the replica of his wife out into space. Snaut then tells Kelvin that similar “visitors” started appearing on the space station after the crew conducted illegal nuclear experiments in a last ditch effort to understand the nature of the planet.

Hari later reappears. But the second time Kelvin calmly accepts her. When Hari is alarmed by Kelvin living her alone in his quarters briefly, she injures herself. Her injuries spontaneously heal when Kelvin attempts to administer first aid.  So, how did Hari reappear? The planet Solaris recreated her by tapping into Kelvin’s memories. Snaut suggests beaming Kelvin’s brain waves at the planet in the hopes that Solaris will then understand the humans and stop creating the “visitors.”

Solaris is a film that is challenging. It takes its sweet old time to unfold all the layers of its story. If you’re a viewer who doesn’t need instant gratification and can stick with it, then it will be one of the best film viewing experiences you will ever have. I’ve seen Solaris a few times. And I still don’t know what it all means. Like another science fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is not just a film about space exploration but a meditation on human nature. Solaris makes you wonder what’s real and imagined, but never relies on cheap twists or tricks to keep the viewer engaged. Is getting rid of Hari ethical, even though she looks and acts the real person? What is the secret of the mysterious planet Solaris? Is the monster out in space really the alien life forms? My impression from Solaris is that the real terror comes from our own demons.

Solaris, as directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, is a slow burn that is worth the wait. It doesn’t answer every single question it raises by the time the credits role. But it leaves you thinking well after you’ve watched it. And that is the sign of truly great filmmaking.

Landmark Science Fiction Movies: The Time Machine

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This week for my look at landmark science fiction movies, I’m going with The Time Machine.  While the H.G. Wells novella has been adapted numerous times, it’s the 1960 version directed by George Pal that is the one to see.

Inventor H. George Wells (Rod Taylor) builds a machine that allows him to journey to the future. Upon arriving in the future, Wells finds that the future descendants of mankind have branched into two species. There are the passive, childlike Eloi and underground cannibals known as the Morlocks. George rescues one Eloi when she falls into a stream and is struggling to get back out. None of the other Eloi step up to rescue her. She is Weena (Yvette Mimieux). George learns that the Eloi do not work, read or know anything of their history.

Things get even more complicated for George. The Morlocks take his time machine and hide it in the Sphinx. The next day, Weena takes George to a museum which tells about a war in the past that last 326 years. When the dust had settled and the war had ended, Earth’s atmosphere was completely contaminated and no one could breathe in it. From their, Earth inhabitant struggled to survive on the poisoned planet. From there, the Eloi and Morlock’s were created. The Eloi stayed on the surface and the Morlocks decided to go underground.

Later George discovers that the Eloi are food for the Morlocks. He rallies some of the Eloi to fight back and defend themselves. As a result of the fighting and destruction, the Sphinx is in shambles. With the doors of the sphinx open, George gets in his time machine (after being attacked in the dark by the Morlocks) and ends up back on the lawn of his home in his own time. George tells his friends of his adventure. Of course they don’t believe him.

What solidifies the 1960 version of The Time Machine are two things. First is George Pal’s solid direction. When Pal produced The War of the Worlds in 1953, the people in charge of H.G. Wells’ estate were so impressed that they told him he could adapt any Wells story he wanted for his next project. So he chose The Time Machine. Like The War of the WorldsThe Time Machine not only tells an intriguing science fiction  story and also showcasing amazing special effects. In the case of both movies, the visuals are great to look at, but they never become the complete focal point. They exist to service the story. A mistake a lot of modern science fiction movies make is assuming audiences are dumb and all we want are spaceships and ray guns. The Time Machine is an old school thinking science fiction movie.

Another reason this version is a classic is its special effects. This movie came out before ILM existed. George Pal and his crew had to make time travel and alien technology believable at a time before computers existed. It’s incredible how well the film holds up from a visual standpoint alone.

Finally, the lead performance by Rod Taylor is extraordinary. It would have been easy for Taylor to let the special effects be the focus and just phone it in. But he makes you believe him as this curious and ambitious inventor. He’s not a stereotypical absentminded professor. He keeps a fantastical story grounded in reality by making you believe all these crazy things are really happening to him. This is not a genre I expected him to succeed in. But he does.

The Time Machine is as rich in its visual details as its performances and intriguing story. George Pal delivers on the effects as well as doing justice to the classic Wells story.

Landmark Science Fiction Movies: Westworld

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It’s week two of my look at landmark science fiction movies. This week’s pick is Westworld. While people likely know Westworld more as an HBO series today, and quite a good one, the original movie from 1973 is worth your time. Before he made a name for himself writing things like Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton wrote and directed this futuristic thriller about amusement park animatronics run amok.

In Westworld, the Delos Company has created the ultimate futuristic vacation spot for the wealthy. For $1,000 a day, vacationers can live out there fantasies in a world of their choice populated by robots that can give them anything they want. There is Medievalworld, Romanworld and Westworld. For the price of admission, you can live in the time period of your choosing. It’s all fun and games roleplaying, until a technical glitch strikes the high tech amusement park. The central computer of the park malfunctions. As a result, the built-in safety features get turned off. The robots of the park then attack the guests.

The premise itself is goofy. But it’s nevertheless intriguing. The whole idea came about when Michael Crichton visited Disneyland and was blown away by the animatronics on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Imagine going to a theme park and it turns into a real life version of Survivor. What’s amazing is that even though Westworld came out in 1973, it looks very slick. The worlds created for the guests really make you feel like you are living in the specific time period. One of the great little touches of Westworld is that in the world set in the old west, one of the robots is Yul Brynner recreating his iconic character from The Magnificent Seven. Brynner was a good sport to appear in this movie and have a murderous robot of himself be on the screen for all to see.

Westworld set the stage for Michael Crichton to create Jurassic Park, another story about a theme park where everything goes wrong. The movie has a lot of fun with it’s seemingly absurd premise. And it’s one of the most entertaining robots have come to destroy us movies ever made. It’s not as advanced as, say, The Terminator. But it’s nonetheless a fun romp.

Landmark Science Fiction Movies: Forbidden Planet

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Greetings, readers! If you get Turner Classic Movies at your house, this month one of their spotlights is on genre defining classics in science fiction. Inspired by that, I will be writing about a few of them for my blog this month. To kick things off, I have chosen Forbidden Planet from 1956. 63 years after its release, it holds up. The film inspired Star TrekStar Wars and many other films. One of the reasons Forbidden Planet is so important, is that up until it came along, science fiction films were fairly campy and never got the respect they deserved. It was one of the first science fiction films to get a real budget. And you can see that budget used very effectively on the screen, with everything from its talented cast to its groundbreaking special effects.

The plot of Forbidden Planet is loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Starship C-57D is dispatched to planet Altair IV to investigate what happened to an expedition from Earth that was sent there twenty years earlier. The planet has all of two survivors: Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). Dr Morbius warns the rescue ship’s leader, Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen), not to land on the planet as he cannot guarantee the crew’s safety. Commander Adams ignores the warning.

When the crew lands, Adams, along with Lt. Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly) and Doc Ostrow (Warren Stevens) meet Robby the Robot. Robby escorts them all to Dr. Morbius’ residence. As Adam and his crew investigate what happened to the previous expedition to the planet, they learn from Dr. Morbius that the rest of the expedition’s crew was killed by a planetary force. The crew’s survivors tried to lift off and go home. But the planetary force vaporized their ship. Dr. Morbius, his wife and their daughter were immune to what attacked the other explorers.

But things get even stranger from there. Overnight, an invisible force sabotages Adams’ ship. Adams confronts Dr. Morbius about the incident to no avail. But then Commander Adams learns the real reason for all of Dr. Morbius’ secrecy. He has been studying a race the Krell, the native race that perished on Altair IV 200,000 years ago overnight. Dr. Morbius has learned how to use a device called the plastic educator that measures and enhances one’s intellectual capacity. Dr. Morbius barely survived using it. But his intellect was permanently doubled in the process. Dr. Morbius then takes them on a tour of the krell underground. Commander Adams demands the discoveries be turned over to Earth. But Morbius refuses.

There is a twist involving what the krell’s plastic educator can do that I will not reveal. I wouldn’t want to spoil it for first time viewers.

Forbidden Planet is a landmark science fiction movie for a multitude of reasons. First, it was one of the first science fiction films to receive a large budget. Its success proved to the film industry that properly funded films of that genre could be profitable. It made films like Star Wars possible. The film also inspired many future science fiction visionaries, including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

Another first achieved by Forbidden Planet was in the music department. The score was done completely by electronic instruments. That would later become common. The other famous score with that distinction also become a science fiction classic: Blade Runner.

Finally, the character of Robby the Robot was a breakthrough. Up until the character came along, robots had just been moving tin cans. Robby walked and talked and real personality. Robby’s designer, Robert Kinoshita, also went on to be the Art Director for the TV series Lost In Space. Many of the robots looked and felt a lot like Robby.

Forbidden Planet proved that science fiction films could be successful if studios invested real money in them and treated them with the seriousness typically given to films in other genres. But the film isn’t only great because it had a big budget and the special effects looked good. It benefited from a very talented cast of actors. The film marked the film debut of Leslie Nielsen. Yes, at one time he was a dramatic actor. Hard to believe after all those Naked Gun movies, But Nielsen proves a strong anchor for the story. And Walter Pidgeon just adds to the list of stellar performances, shining as the conflicted Dr. Morbius. Forbidden Planet was a breakthrough for science fiction. And it’s still incredible to watch decades later.