Favorite Movie Dance Scenes: Swing Time

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Its week thee of my blog spotlight on my favorite movie dance scenes. Last week I focused on song and dance legend Gene Kelly’s iconic Singin’ in the Rain number. This week I go from one legend to a pair of legends: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The pair made a total of 10 films together. One of their best was Swing Time (1936). There’s a cornucopia of great dance scenes to pick from in the film. But my favorite is Pick Yourself Up. It’s not only exquisitely choreographed, but it’s a genuinely sweet scene between the iconic dancers.

At the point in the film when the number happens, Astaire and Rogers have just gone through their initial first meeting where they irritate each other (part of the formula of their films). Astaire tracks Rogers down at her dance studio and pretends to need dance lessons. If that doesn’t tell you this film is fiction, I don’t know what will. At first, Astaire feigns being a clumsy dancer. But as Rogers is about to be fired for being an incompetent dance instructor, Astaire implores the dance studio owner to let him show off what Rogers taught him. That sets up the fun number where they dance not just over the dance floor, but waltz over the railing around said dance floor and appear to defy gravity.

There’s much to love about this dance scene. There’s the natural chemistry of Astaire and Rogers. They look like they’re having fun on the dance floor. It’s not that in other scenes/movies they don’t. But here their chemistry just pops off the screen a little bit more for me. I think above all what I love the most though is the simply elegance of the scene. The waltzing and tap dancing is energetic yet graceful. They waltz and tap dance ace if they’re floating on air. My favorite part is at the end when they waltz over the dance floor railing and the dance studio owner looks on in awe.

There are more complicated and legendary numbers in Swing Time. There’s the elaborate tribute to Bill Robinson: Bojangles of Harlem and the legendary Never Gonna Dance (Ginger Rogers performed it so many times that her feet bled!). But I love the simplicity of Pick Yourself Up. The choreography is fun but spontaneous. Credit must go not only to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, two of the most talented people to ever put on dancing shoes. But I must also acknowledge choreographer Hermes Pan. He never ceases to disappoint.

My favorite Astaire and Rogers film is actually Top Hat. But Swing Time gives it a run for its money and grows on me each time. It has the usual Astaire and Rogers formula, but the dancing and acting chemistry of the stars elevates it to fun and artistic heights. You can’t go wrong watching any of the Astaire and Rogers films. But if you need a film that instantly lifts your spirits and makes you want to get up and dance, Swing Time is the one to watch.

Favorite Movie Dance Scenes: Singin’ in the Rain

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Greetings, readers! Last week I kicked off a month-long look at my favorite movie dance scenes. My first pick was America from West Side Story. And now I go in a completely different direction. This week’s favorite is the title song number from Singin’ in the Rain. The film is filled with worthy choices: Make ‘Em Laugh, Moses, Good Morning… But it’s Gene Kelly’s solo number that’s so delightful I could watch it on a loop.

To set the scene up: Kelly has just figured out how to save his latest picture (with help from Donald O’ Connor and Debbie Reynolds) how to save his latest picture: The Dueling Cavalier. After a screening filled with technical problems (it’s the studio’s first attempt at a talking picture that has glitches from beginning to end), Kelly and company have an epiphany: make it into a musical! As Kelly and Reynolds part ways after the revelation, Kelly is filled with joy not just at being able to save his career, but with his realization of his love for the Reynolds character. And it’s Kelly walking on a cloud that leads to what’s arguably the most iconic dance scene of his legendary career.

Why do I love this scene so much? It’s filled with such pure joy and spontaneity for one thing. While it flows effortlessly, the whole number feels like Kelly is making it up as it goes. He’s physicalizing all the warmth his feeling about being in love. That makes the number really pop off the screen. The energy in the iconic dance sequence is contagious. That probably explains why no matter how many times I’ve watched it, I still view it with a goofy grin on my face.

Another reason this scene is a favorite is because I love the imagination of the choreography. Kelly tape dances down the street, under a rain gutter, hangs from a lamp-post, twirls his umbrella in a circle in the middle of the street, and triumphantly stomps in a big puddle while getting a quizzical look from a passing policeman. It’s like watching a kid in a candy store. According to Hollywood lore, Kelly had a fever while filming the number (according to IMDB he had a temperature of 101). It’s a testament to Kelly’s professionalism and ridiculous talent that under those circumstances he delivered such an amazing performance. While Singin’ in the Rain isn’t as technically difficult as the Broadway Melody number, it’s no less impressive. Its brilliance is in its simple imagination and Kelly selling it with his facial expressions and body language.

Finally, there’s just the simple fact that it lifts my spirits every time I see it. I don’t care what mood you’re in. You’d have to be dead inside to not be the least bit uplifted by that scene. Singin’ in the Rain is on a special list of movies I put on whenever I’m feeling down in the dumps. I’m a big fan of movie musicals, especially the ones from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Of all of them, Singin’ in the Rain is my favorite, just ahead of The Wizard of Oz and West Side Story. As Roger Ebert said in his Great Movie essay on the film, “Singin’ in the Rain is a transcendent experience, and no one who loves movies can afford to miss it.” I couldn’t agree more!

While another Gene Kelly vehicle, An American In Paris, got all the awards recognition (it even won an Oscar for Best Picture), Singin’ in the Rain is the superior movie IMHO. An American In Paris is well-made and has great music and dancing, but the story to me has always felt pretentious. Singin’ in the Rain is a great fable about the early days of talkies and is rich with great singing, dancing, and fun dialogue. Kelly’s performance of the title song is iconic for good reason. I will never tire of watching it.

Favorite Film Dance Scenes: West Side Story

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I don’t know about you, but I love musicals. I love them for the great songs, and, of course, the fabulous dancing. In that spirit, this month I will be highlighting some of my favorite dance scenes in motion picture history. Now, I will be discussing one scene a week, so I won’t be covering all of my favorites. But I thought it would be a fun spotlight to do.

My first favorite movie dance scene comes from the Robert Wise classic West Side Story. Now, I could pick any number of dance scenes from this movie. There’s not a song or dance sequence that isn’t just utter perfection. If you were to ask me  to pick my favorite, it would be between Cool and my choice this week: America. The whole movie of West Side Story crackles with energy. That’s in large part due to its choreographer Jerome Robbins. For a large stretch of the production, Robbins was also the co-director. But he was too demanding, and eventually was fired. But he didn’t leave without putting an indelible stamp on the film. Robbins rehearsed with the dancers three months before shooting began, and the hard work shows.

America is not only my favorite song in a musical full of great songs. But the energy level and dancing skill on display is off the charts. At the center of the number are Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. Watching them dance, you can see that they richly deserved their Oscars. I love how whole sequence is framed too, cutting back between the men and women singing. The song is about how the different genders view life in America as immigrants, and the way it’s cut really lets each side’s point of view be heard. But back to the dancing. I love this number in particular because of Moreno’s sass. Her facial expressions tell you so much about how she really feels. This is a strong, complicated woman, not to be crossed. On the other side is George Chakiris, who’s every bit equal as a dancer (he actually played Riff in the stage musical’s London production). Chakiris not only nails the dance moves, but his body language sells the whole number. The frustration of his character comes out in his physicality.

America is a great song (having Leonard Bernstein do your music and Stephen Sondheim do your lyrics never hurts) and it all meshes perfectly with the choreographed visuals. The way it’s filmed makes it feel like a dancing duel between the male and female Puerto Ricans. That adversarial feel adds to the energy level. At the end when there’s an overhead shot of some of the dancers being triumphantly lifted overhead, it feels like an exclamation mark being put on the number. The lyrics are poignant and all the actors and dancers make them come alive through the amazing choreography. It’s a joy to behold. Today when movie musicals are made stars are hired often at the expense of people who can actually sing and dance. West Side Story shows what can be achieved when you invest in people who can sing dance and act. That’s why it’s still being embraced by audiences old and new over 50 years later.

25 Reasons the 80s Was a Great Decade For Movies: Part 4

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Throughout the month of January I’ve been highlighting great movies from the decade of the 1980s. Although often maligned as a decade that lacked creativity or produced any really stellar movies, the 80s did produce films that have stood the test of time some 30 years later. Here’s the last part of my top 25 films of the decade.

  19. The Princess Bride

What more can I say about one of the most icon films of all-time? Rob Reiner’s brilliant adaptation of William Goldman’s classic book is full of quotable lines (who hasn’t shouted, “inconceivable!” or recited, “my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,” at least once in their life?). The Princess Bride is great for a multitude of reasons. There are all the rich characters, even in the supporting roles (look for Billy Crystal who steals the show in the role of Miracle Max), the witty banter, the great casting. But for me the real joy of this film is watching conventional fairy tale wisdom get turned on its ear. It has the fractured fairy tale spirit of modern tales like Enchanted and Wicked. The Princess Bride is smart, fun, and as enjoyable at age 8 as age 80.

  20. Reds

My next choice is a movie you’ll have to set aside a large chunk of your day to watch. But it’s worth it. The film is Reds. Produced, directed by, and starring Warren Beatty, it’s one of the most ambitious films of the decade. Here’s a synopsis to get you up to speed:

American journalist John Reed (Warren Beatty) journeys to Russia to document the Bolshevik Revolution and returns a revolutionary. His fervor for left-wing politics leads him to Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), then married, who will become a feminist icon and activist. Politics at home become more complicated as the rift grows between reality and Reed’s ideals. Bryant takes up with a cynical playwright, and Reed returns to Russia, where his health declines.–IMDB

 Beatty’s passion project is the type of bold, sprawling period epic that Hollywood doesn’t make often anymore. It stands out and makes my list because of the ambition it took to make it and because of all the outstanding performances. In addition to Beatty there’s the always wonderful Diane Keaton. Also look for yet another great performance by Jack Nicholson who plays playwright Eugene O’ Neill. Equal parts history lesson and human drama, Reds is not to be missed.

  21. Aliens

Often sequels are a pale imitations of the original. But the 1980s had at least two films that defied that convention. There was The Empire Strikes Back, which appeared earlier on my list. And now comes Aliens. Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) was one of the best and most influential science fiction films to be made. How could it be topped? In 1986 James Cameron came around and did just that. While Alien relied more on suspense and we had just the one alien (which was plenty terrifying when we finally saw it), Aliens gave us more of the scary creatures. But it isn’t just great because of all the creepy critters. It also further fleshed out the character of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). Ripley was a major player in the original, but not front and center. In Aliens she’s front and center. Weaver’s performance was so remarkable that it garnered her an Oscar nomination. That’s almost unheard of for actors in sequels or action pictures.

The plot picks off where the original film left off. Ripley is discovered in deep space by a salvage ship. When she comes out of hyper sleep, she’s horrified to learn that the planet where contact was made in the first movie has been colonized. And contact has been lost with the planet, because of course. What do you expect when you colonize a planet populated by acid-tongued aliens? Ripley is eventually talked into joining a military crew as they journey to the planet to find out what happened. As far as science fiction or creature feature films go, it’s hard to beat Aliens. The creatures are terrifying (wonderfully created by Stan Winston and his effects crew), there’s a main character we can root for, and there are genuinely terrifying/suspenseful encounters with the aliens. There’s a particularly claustrophobic scene where Ripley and Newt (the lone survivor of the human colonists) are trapped in a room with the face hugger aliens. And then there’s the showdown with the queen alien where Weaver delivers the iconic line, “get away from her, you bitch!” Aliens isn’t just a mindless action picture. It’s made with genuine craftsmanship. From the great creature designs, to James Horner’s score, and Sigourney Weaver’s performance, Aliens delivers.

  22. The Breakfast Club

Too many films aimed at teens today rely on being raunchy to attract audiences. There used to be a writer/director who really wrote intelligent and honest films aimed at teens. The man was John Hughes. In  1985 he released one of his many iconic teen films: The Breakfast Club. It starts with a simple premise. A group of high school students all come in on a Saturday to serve detention. Principal Vernon (Paul Gleason) assigns them an essay where they have to write about who they think they are. The genius of The Breakfast Club is the writing and the performances. The way the story is constructed, the true personalities of the characters gradually emerge in a series of smart and moving revelation scenes. The talented young cast (dubbed “The Brat Pack” at the time) are more than up to the task. Unlike modern teen films that rely on shock value, The Breakfast Club draws us in with its richly written characters. The truths that come out as the characters learn more and more about each other are sometimes humorous and sometimes heartbreaking. But like every Hughes teen comedy it resonates with audiences because it’s honest about what it’s like to be a teenager.

  23. Ghostbusters

There’s a short list of films I can recite practically the entire screenplay of. Ghostbusters is on that list. The story, about a team of paranormal investigators who set-up a business where they catch ghosts in New York City, doesn’t sound like much on the surface. But the magic of Ghostbusters comes from the witty dialogue and the chemistry of its talented cast. Written by stars Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis and directed by Ivan Reitman, there isn’t one dull moment in this comedy. From the opening scene where a librarian is haunted by a ghost in the stacks to a showdown on top of a New York City apartment building complex, this is a fun film.

The special effects of the ghosts are convincing and the dialogue is very fun to listen to. The cast is composed of veterans of Saturday Night Live and Second City TV. In addition to Aykroyd and Ramis there’s Bill Murray, Rick Moranis, and then the wonderful Sigourney Weaver. Weaver plays the first client of the Ghostbusters when she discovers a demonic presence in her fridge. There’s a real joy in watching all these talented actors interact. While I enjoy all of them, my favorite is Bill Murray. His dry delivery just makes his dialogue even funnier (as an example, he goes to Weaver’s apartment, and upon finding her possessed very casually says, “that’s a different look for you, isn’t it?). Ghostbusters is so iconic I think we have started to overlook all the hard work that went into make it. Good comedies are hard to make. Ghostbusters is one of the best.

  24. The Lost Boys

Vampire movies, like zombie movies, have become very commonplace. With the popularity of TV shows like The Vampire Diaries and the inexplicable success of Twilight (that’s a topic for another day), vampires are as much a part of popular culture now as they were when Bram Stoker kicked the whole phenomenon off upon penning his seminal work Dracula. There have been a lot of broody teenage vampire films of late. But one of the best came out in 1987: The Lost Boys. Featuring a cast that included a young Kiefer Sutherland, Corey Feldman, Corey Haim, and veteran actors like Dianne Wiest, it’s become a cult classic. Here’s a brief synopsis for the uninitiated:

A mother and her two sons move to a small coast town in California. The town is plagued by bikers and some mysterious deaths. The younger boy makes friends with two other boys who claim to be vampire hunters while the older boy is drawn into the gang of bikers by a beautiful girl. The older boy starts sleeping days and staying out all night while the younger boy starts getting into trouble because of his friends’ obsession.–IMDB

It has plot points that echo other vampire classics, especially Near Dark. Director Joel Schumacher’s resume has been a mixed bag to say the least. His good credits include The Client, Phone Booth, and St. Elmo’s Fire. But the bad on his resume is pretty bad. Batman & Robin is one film I would like erased from my memory and Bad Company badly wasted the talents of Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock. But as bad as those films were, Lost Boys was great. It has a lot of fun with its premise, gives us a fun look at goth and vampire culture, and is sharply written. It’s rightly credited as iconic film of the 80s.

  25. Moonstruck

The last film on my list of great 80s movies was directed by Norman Jewison, a director who deserves to be on more lists of great directors IMHO. It’s the witty and fun Moonstruck from 1987. It features an inspired screenplay by John Patrick Shanley (it deservedly won an Oscar), and Oscar-winning performances from Cher and Olympia Dukakis. It follows the exploits of Loretta Castorini (Cher), a book-keeper from Brooklyn, New York, who finds herself in a difficult situation when she falls for the brother (Nicholas Cage) of the man she has agreed to marry (Danny Aiello). The two brothers had a falling out and Loretta is supposed to convince Nicholas Cage’s character to come to the wedding. Well, in comic opera fashion, Cher and Cage end up falling in love, complicating the situation.

But Moonstruck isn’t just a broad farce. It’s a film where not one character is wasted. In addition to Cher and Nicholas Cage, there’s Loretta’s large, crazy Italian family (headed by her parents, beautifully played by Olympia Dukakis and Vincent Gardenia) and all the colorful people in the neighborhood. Even the little side stories are interesting. Moonstruck paved the way for films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where the comedy comes from the rich culture of its characters and from situations that happen when you live in a large family. No amount of writing can do Moonstruck justice. It’s one of the smartest, funniest romantic comedies of the 80s, or any decade for that matter. This year will mark 30 years since its release. I have a feeling that when the film’s 50th anniversary comes around, audiences old and new will be enjoying it together. It’s that good.

I hope you enjoyed my look back at great films of the 80s. As I said earlier, it produced more great films than people realize. So if you see a film from the 80s on a great movies list, don’t be so quick to scoff at it.

25 Reasons the 80s Was a Great Decade For Movies: Part 3

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This week I continue my look back at the 25 greatest films of the 80s. While the decade is often derided and some people don’t believe any films from that time can be called “classic,” I beg to differ. Here are six more films that prove the 80s was a great movie decade.

  13. E. T.–The Extra Terrestrial

What can I say about E.T. that hasn’t been said already? It’s one of many examples why Steven Spielberg is one of our great directors. The film is not a masterpiece merely because of its special effects, including the adorable alien. It’s greatness lies in the little things. One of those is its talented young cast. I’m generally leery of child actors, but all the kids in E.T. deliver pitch-perfect performances, especially Henry Thomas (Elliott) and Drew Barrymore (Gertie). Elliott and his siblings talk and act like real kids. This is a film that treats its characters and audience with intelligence. It’s not a mindless action film with fancy ray guns like many of today’s science fiction pictures. Another reason this is a great movie is that it realistically deals with divorce and the impact it has on kids. Elliott’s relationship with E.T. helps fill the void of an absent father. I also like how the mom, wonderfully played by Dee Wallace, isn’t moping around and looking for a new man in her life to solve all her problems. She gets right back to being a mom. Her single mom struggles feel genuine. Finally, there’s the iconic score, which won John Williams an Oscar. Magical…simply…magical! The last fifteen minutes of E.T. are a perfect marriage of story and music. The ending feels downright operatic because of the music.

  14. Platoon

There have been a lot of war films made over the years. But few have ever had the raw emotional impact of Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Released in 1986, the film is one of the best of its kind, especially about the Vietnam War. What sets Platoon apart from most war pictures is that it doesn’t glamorize combat. It’s an anti-war film without being preachy about it. The film also doesn’t merely exist to tell us that war is hell. Many films have said that in the past. Platoon does what few war films do. It dares to get us emotionally invested with its characters and not just watch for the battle scenes. There are combat scenes in the film, and they are downright brutal. But the enemy isn’t just the Viet Cong. The soldiers are fighting among themselves. Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), who leaves college to go fight in the Vietnam War, is isolated from the rest of his unit because he’s new. As if having an ill-tempered Staff Sargeant (Tom Berenger) isn’t enough, conflict in the platoon arises when an illegal killing happens during a village raid. Platoon shows us the carnage of war on the battle lines. But it also shows us the psychological impact on the soldiers. That’s what makes the journey of Chris and his fellow soldiers one of the most powerful films ever made.

  15. Back to the Future

Often comedies lose their ability to make us laugh after repeat viewings when we know the jokes. That isn’t the case with Back to the Future. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched Robert Zemeckis’ 80s time travel classic. But it never grows old. The script (written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale) is just as witty and fun as the first time I saw it. If I had a dime for how many times I quoted lines from Back to the Future in real life, I could retire tomorrow. The film was marketed as a science fiction action picture. But it’s far more than that. It’s about seeing your parents as teenagers when you can’t imagine what they ever understood what it was like to have teenager problems. And the whole film has a real old-fashioned charm to it. If Frank Capra ever made a time travel movie, I imagine it would resemble Back to the Future.

I can’t believe I’m this far into discussing the film and haven’t mentioned the cast. There’s Michael J. Fox as our protagonist, Marty, who gets sent back in time to before his parents met thanks to a time machine invented by Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). When Marty finds himself stuck in the 50s, he seeks out Doc Brown in the past. Not only does he have to get back to 1985, he has to make sure his parents meet and fall in love, otherwise he will cease to exist. All of this is told in the screenplay with not just wit, but a lot of heart. The relationship between Marty and Doc Brown is a lot of fun to watch. Both Fox and Lloyd have a wonderful chemistry together. It’s one of many reasons Back to the Future is an enduring classic.

  16. The Elephant Man

David Lynch is probably known mostly for his groundbreaking TV show Twin Peaks. But he’s also a fantastic film director. Some of his films are inexplicable, but they’re always worth watching and discussing. One of his best films came out in 1980: The Elephant Man. It’s a story about what it’s like to be an outsider simply because of one’s appearance and how simple human kindness can change a life. Here’s a brief overview:

In Victorian London, Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) with the London Hospital comes across a circus sideshow attraction run by a man named Bytes (Freddie Jones) called “The Elephant Man”. In actuality, the creature on display is indeed a man, twenty-one year old John Merrick (John Hurt) who has several physical deformities, including an oversized and disfigured skull, and oversized and disfigured right shoulder. Brutish Bytes, his “owner”, only wants whatever he can get economically by presenting Merrick as a freak. Treves manages to bring Merrick under his care at the hospital – not without several of its own obstacles, including being questioned by those in authority since Merrick cannot be cured. Treves initially believes Bytes’ assertion that mute Merrick is an imbecile, but ultimately learns that Merrick can speak and is a well-read and articulate man. As news of Merrick hits the London newspapers, he becomes a celebrated curiosity amongst London’s upper class, including with Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft), a famed actress. Despite treated much more humanely, the question becomes whether Treves’ actions are a further exploitation of Merrick. And as Merrick becomes more famous, others try to get their two-cents worth from who still remains a curiosity and a freak to most, including to Bytes, who has since lost his meal ticket–IMDB

The Elephant Man was based on a true story, and that adds to the emotional impact. David Lynch is known for films that can be challenging and bizarre (Blue Velvet, Eraserhead). But here we see he is able to tell a very moving human story. He proved that ability again with his film The Straight Story. In addition to Lynch’s direction, the film is a classic because of it stellar cast, led by the always wonderful Anthony Hopkins. John Hurt, who plays the title character, really had a difficult task. And the veteran actor is more than up to the task. Hurt is one of greatest chameleons to ever act on the big or small screen. Whether he’s playing the Elephant Man, Mr. Olivander, or Dr. Who, Hurt is a joy to watch disappear into a character. The Elephant Man is about the need for empathy and tolerance, things we need more of in today’s world.

  17. The Evil Dead

Zombie films seem paseé in an age where The Walking Dead is the most successful show on television and a new zombie film seems to come out every year. But back on 1981 a film came along that really did something original with the zombie concept invented by George A. Romero in the horror classic Night of the Living Dead. This time around the zombie kills were done with bloody claymation. I’m speaking of course of Sam Raimi’s low-budget horror romp The Evil Dead. Made on a shoestring budget and starring B-movie legend Bruce Campbell,the film is a classic because of its imagination. A group of teenagers going to a cabin for a vacation has been done in movies before. But not many of them lead to the discovery of ancient texts and translations that unleash spirits of the undead.

Eventually the film does become like Ten Little Indians where you’re watching characters get killed off and waiting to see who survives at the end. But unlike many zombie/slasher films, it never feels like mindless exploitation. In fact it’s so gory that it takes on an over the top humorous quality. Whether it’s the scene where Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) gets attacked by possessed trees, the teens turning into zombies and then exploding when they get killed, or the creepy point of view shots of the killer, Evil Dead is scary and very inventive. The other films in Raimi’s Evil Dead Trilogy: Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn and Army of Darkness are worth checking out as well. Who doesn’t need more films with Bruce Campbell in their life?

  18. Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Robert Zemeckis had a great streak of movies in the 80s. I discussed his film Back to the Future earlier in this week’s blog entry. But his other major success in the decade was the groundbreaking Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The film broke ground from a technical standpoint:

For this movie, animation director Richard Williams set out to break three rules that previously were conventions for combining live-action and animation: first, move the camera as much as possible so the Toons don’t look pasted on flat backgrounds; second, use lighting and shadows to an extreme that was never before attempted; third, have the Toons interact with real-world objects and people as much as possible.–IMDB

Animation and live action had been blended on-screen before, most notably in Mary Poppins. But in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it felt completely seamless. The actors and cartoon characters seem to be interacting in literally the same world. But the film isn’t just a classic because of its technical achievements. This is a very clever and smart film. Bob Hoskins, who plays private eye Eddie Valiant, could have overplayed his role opposite all the zany cartoon characters. But he strikes just the right balance between comedy and drama. It’s a subtle yet brilliant performance. The story, about a private eye who hates toons working to clear the name of one accused of murder (Roger Rabbit), is a great satire on the film noir genre. The other joy of the film is that it has a lot of in-jokes about cartoon tropes (not falling until you start to look down, for example). Plus, it features the only time Looney Tunes characters and Disney characters appeared in a movie together. Does it get much better than Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny in the same movie? I think not. Also worthy of note is Roger Rabbit’s wife Jessica, voiced by Kathleen Turner and modeled after Veronica Lake. Oh, and there’s Christopher Lloyd turning in yet another wonderful performance as Judge Doom. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is fun for kids as well as adults.

That concludes part 3 of my look at great 80s movies. See you next week for my fourth and final installment!

25 Reasons the 80s Was a Great Decade For Movies: Part 2

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Last week I brought you part 1 of my month-long look at the 25 best films of the 1980s. IT was a better decade for movies then people give it credit for. So, without further ado, here are the next six  films on my list.

  7. Blood Simple

The Coen brothers have brought us a lot of the best films of the last 20+ years, including Fargo, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski…the list goes on. in 1984 they made one of the best neo-noir films: Blood Simple. Starring future Fargo star Frances McDormand and the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh (he also appeared in another film on my list: Blade Runner), it’s one of the best crime films you will ever see. To get you up to speed on the plot, here’s a brief synopsis:

Texas bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), who is generally regarded as not a nice person, hires shady private detective Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), who is able to obtain what Marty requests: evidence – in this instance, photographic – that his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand), and one of his bartenders, Ray, (John Getz) are having an affair. As Ray and Abby realize that Marty has found out about them, it allows them to plan for their future away from Marty, while be up front with Marty about the situation. Marty, in turn, decides to hire Visser once again, this time to kill Abby and Ray, and dispose of their bodies so that they won’t be found. The out in the open affair and the contract hit lead to some actions based on self-interest, and a standoff of sorts between the four players, which is compounded in complexity by some wrong assumptions of what has happened, with an innocent bystander, another of the Marty’s bartenders, Meurice, potentially and unwittingly adding to the scenario.–IMDB

In classic noir fashion, the story has a labyrinth plot and it involves love and betrayal. In the hands of lesser-skilled filmmakers Blood Simple would have gotten bogged down explaining every single plot point and been a plodding mess. But the Coen brothers make it all work. There’s not a wasted moment in this film It’s suspenseful and you can’t take your eyes off it. The cast is superb, especially McDormand and Walsh. The Coens have made a lot of great films, and Blood Simple is one of their best.

  8. My Dinner With Andre

My next choice doesn’t have an elaborate plot like Blood Simple. In fact it doesn’t really have a plot at all. It’s literally a film about two people talking…and talking…and talking. It’s Louis Malle’s daring masterpiece My Dinner With Andre. There’s no elaborate exposition, no state of the art special effects, no bells and whistles. It’s about two friends: Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, who relate anecdotes to each other over dinner. Over the nearly two-hour running time they discuss life experiences and learn about their differing world views. It’s a throwback to the art of conversation, something I fear we have lost in era of Facebook and Twitter. My Dinner With Andre is the type of bold film you don’t see today. Watch it and then sit down and have a real conversation with someone.

  9. The Empire Strikes Back

My next selection isn’t anything like My Dinner With Andre. It’s a blockbuster film, but it also happens to be one of the rare sequels that tops the original. And the original was a classic. It’s The Empire Strikes Back, the second installment in the original Star Wars trilogy. The Empire Strikes Back not only has an amazing look to it, but it has an even darker and more impressive story than the first film. The special effects, again done by Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, continue to expand the epic scope of the Star Wars universe. There’s a battle on the ice planet of Hoth, where the rebels have set up a base after the events of the last installment. It picks up exactly where Star Wars left off.

So why do I have The Empire Strikes Back on my list? For starters, it’s my favorite film in the Star Wars saga. It builds on the philosophy of Star Wars, including the ways of the Jedi. In this film we meet Jedi master Yoda, a critical character to the rest of the series. Luke begins his training in some of the film’s best scenes. But Luke isn’t the only one who gets some character development in Empire. It’s in this film that we get the blossoming romance of Han and Leia. Their growing relationship is so much fun to watch. The Empire Strikes Back features great witty banter. Credit that to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. Empire features an iconic confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader, which sets up the last film. It had to be daunting taking over directing duties for the most successful film (at that time) ever-made. But Irvin Kershner was more than equal to the task. The Empire Strikes Back stands out because it not only builds on the greatness of the last film, but it manages to be an even better film while being darker and grittier.

  10. Raiders of the Lost Ark

The next film on my list is, again, a blockbuster. But, as was the case with The Empire Strikes Back, the craftsmanship behind it makes it a classic. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a throwback to Saturday matinée serials of the 1940s. But it isn’t just a mindless action picture. Director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas collaborated to make one heck of a thrill ride. From the iconic opening scene in a South American temple where Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) where the hero gets chased by a boulder, to a thrilling truck chase through the desert, this is blockbuster entertainment of the highest caliber. Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn’t revolutionary in the effects department like Star Wars. It was shot quick and dirty like the serial films it was paying homage too. That’s part of its charm. It’s a beautifully crafted piece of nostalgia. That isn’t to say this movie looks cheap. Spielberg made many great shots, including Indy’s entrance in the opening scene, the silhouette of him entering the bar to meet his ex-girlfriend for the first time in years, the scene in the map room that has no dialogue (its artistry is in the framing and the use of John Williams’ iconic score)…I could go on. Raiders belongs on a list of great movies not only because it’s a superb action film. It was made by people who love film making. I should mention that this is also a fun film to listen to. Lawrence Kasdan, who penned Empire Strikes Back, has given us more great dialogue in this film. I’ve watched Raiders of the Lost Ark at least 10 times, and probably will watch it at least 10 more. It’s that good.

  11. Stand By Me

Switching gears once again, my next choice really took me by surprise when I first saw it. It’s Stand By Me from 1986. Based on a story by Stephen King and directed by Robe Reiner, it’s one of the best coming-of-age films to ever hit the big screen. Now , this is not a horror movie. People probably think it is because Stephen King is the author of the source material. But King also wrote The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, two of best prison films. Neither has creatures that go bump in the night. But let’s cut to the chase. Stand By Me is about a group of boys who go looking for the body of a local boy who has been missing for several days. They take a trek through the woods looking for the body. Over the course of several days, they learn about each other, friendship, and how to stand up for what’s right. Stand By Me is great for several reasons. There’s the fact that the original story was great and screenwriters Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans did a terrific job bringing it to the screen. But what really makes this movie is the talented young cast: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, and Corey Feldman. They’re very believable as friends and they talk and act like kids their age would. Stand By Me doesn’t condescend and treat kids as mindless drones spouting one-liners. The arc of all the characters is really something to see unfold. Director Rob Reiner does a skillful job of telling a great story about friendship, growing up, and what it’s like having a childhood adventure.

  12. Full Metal Jacket

Stanley Kubrick is a name you see on lots of great directors. Anyone that’s seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Killing, Paths of Glory, or basically any of films, knows why. While he was a notorious perfectionist and could be difficult to work with, Kubrick was a master craftsman. In 1987 he released one of his many masterpieces: Full Metal Jacket. A sobering look at the Vietnam War, Full Metal Jacket deserves a place in the pantheon of great war movies along with another great movie about Vietnam that happened to come out in the 80’s: Platoon. Full Metal Jacket is a look at war in two parts:

A two-segment look at the effect of the military mindset and war itself on Vietnam era Marines. The first half follows a group of recruits in boot camp under the command of the punishing Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). The second half shows one of those recruits, Joker (Matthew Modine), covering the war as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes, focusing on the Tet offensive.–IMDB

What makes Full Metal Jacket great is the way it really looks at the brutality of boot camp and the effects of war on soldiers. This isn’t one of the those flag waving war is fun movies that you saw come out of the World Wat II era. Over the course of the film, we get up close and personal with the soldiers. By the time they go to war, what happens is all the more brutal because it’s happening to people we’ve come to know and care about. Kubrick manages to tell both halves of the story with equal skill. One final note: look for an early screen appearance by Vincent D’ Onofrio as one of the recruits in the first half of the movie.

That’s it for week two of my look at great 80s movies. Come back next week for part 3!

In Memory of My Mother: How I Became an Old Movie Weirdo

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Greetings, readers! Before I move on to my October spotlight on horror films, I wanted to take a moment to write this personal piece. This Thursday on September 29th my mother would have turned 63. For those that don’t know, she lost her battle with breast cancer in 2009. Every year since her death I have honored her birthday by enjoying a movie that she either introduced me to or that we shared many screenings of. I mention all this not to tell you my life story. Rather, I mention all this because my mother is a major part of why this blog exists. My passion for all things movies came about from the influence of my librarian mother, watching Siskel & Ebert, and reading Roger Ebert’s film reviews every week. So let me tell you how my late mother made me into what those of us who live-tweet movies on Turner Classic Movies call an old movie weirdo.

When I was really little I watched largely Disney movies. One that I made my parents sit through a lot was The Cat From Outer Space. What can I say? I was turning into a geek even as a kid. Eventually I got hooked on Disney musicals with The Little Mermaid. I played that soundtrack so much it’s not even funny. So I was into pretty typical kids fare as far as movies went until about age 7. One day I went looking for a movie to watch when I came across something called Raiders of the Lost Ark. I didn’t realize it when I picked up the VHS box, but that movie would change my life.

I put it in the tape player. Early in the opening sequence at the idol’s temple is the iconic scene of Indiana Jones running from a giant boulder. The scene blew my mind. I kept rewinding it and slowing it down to see the trickery the filmmakers used to make it happen. I did eventually move on and finish the movie. But, like Indiana Jones, I was now on a quest. Mine was to find out how Indiana Jones didn’t get turned into a human pancake. Well, I watched to movie multiple times. I wore out several VHS copies of it. One day when my mom came home with a tape, I was expecting it to be another copy of Raiders. Sadly it wasn’t. My spirits were crushed. Instead she brought home a documentary. It was called Great Movie Stunts & the Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I watched it basically only because it was somehow connected that the movie I had gotten hooked on. I expected to be bored. Boy was I wrong! The documentary was an incredible look at how all the stunts were done on the movie. I was in awe of what the filmmakers, particularly the stuntmen, were able to do. From that day forward I wanted to not just watch movies, but learn about how they were made and develop a deeper appreciation for what everyone in front of and behind the camera  did. Because of my mother’s librarian instincts, I had taken my first steps to becoming a film geek.

My mother then brought home books on film. She saw that film was becoming something I was very passionate about. Eventually we made a weekly ritual out of watching Siskel & Ebert At the Movies. From those two I learned how to intelligently and passionately discuss film. When I discovered my love of writing in English class, my mom showed me Roger Ebert’s film reviews. I was astounded at how Roger Ebert managed to be knowledgeable and passionate about film and write about it so well. I even started recording myself on cassette tapes reviewing movies. Those were good times.

My curiosity about and love of film continued to grow over the years. My mother introduced me to so many classics. Let me just highlight a few of my memories of sharing films with her.

1997 marked the 20th anniversary of Star Wars. That year, all of the original trilogy was re-released in theaters to mark the occasion. I remember when we saw the first TV ad for the re-release my mom saying to me,”I’m marking the release dates down. My children are going to be raised on the classics.” I should mention that my mom also was into Star Trek and shared Superman comics with me. There was a strong geek gene in my family. Well, we went to see the Star Wars films at the State Theater in Menomonie, WI. When you’re a kid and you see the Death Star for the first time on a big screen, it’s an amazing experience. What I remember aside from being blown away by the films was how they brought out the kid in my mom. She really enjoyed sharing the experience and passing the enjoyment of the classic series on to her kids.

Another memory I have of sharing films with my mother was when she introduced me to my first classic film. One day while I was home sick from school, she introduced me to Nick and Nora Charles. That’s right, when I was home with the flu my mother and I had a Thin Man marathon. Laughing at the classic comedy series really was the best medicine. From that day on I had a big crush on William Powell. Classic film made a sick day more bearable.

As I mentioned before, my mom was also a huge fan of science fiction. After watching all of Star Trek (original series of course), we sat down and watched Forbidden Planet together. She told me it was a classic of the genre and that it had been a big inspiration for Gene Roddenberry when he created Stat Trek. Decades later I bought her an anniversary DVD set of it for Christmas, complete with a figurine of the robot from the movie. I also discovered through watching it together that she had a crush on Leslie Nielsen.

Let me wrap up this trip down memory lane with how my mother introduced me to silent movies. One day she brought home Metropolis from the library. Funny aside: the first copy she brought home had the weird soundtrack (Freddie Mercury was among the featured artists). I eventually got the original version and marveled at the scope and scale of the film. I couldn’t believe it when she told me it was made in the 1920s. We had a great discussion afterwards about how it influenced a whole generation of filmmakers.

I could sit here all-day and talk about the ways my mother made me a connoisseur of classic film. With her I watched Casablanca for the first time. We watched It’s a Wonderful Life together every Christmas. Then there’s the time she was cataloguing a book on films you had to see before you died, came across Sullivan’s Travels, and introduced me to it against my skepticism. The woman had great taste in movies.

So thank you mom. Thank you for encouraging me to be curious and appreciate the art of cinema. Thank you for not scolding me for wearing out copies of Raiders. Thank you for introducing me to Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart. Thank you for listening to John Williams soundtracks on long car rides. Thank you for all the great film memories. You were one of a kind and I’m proud to be your daughter.