31 Days of Oscar Guide: Week 3

Day 16. The Silence of the Lambs

This is a tough day to pick just one movie. Old school me wants to pick The Lion In Winter. But I love a good TCM premiere. And day 16 brings the premiere of one of my favorite serial killer movies. The Silence of the Lambs has been often imitated but rarely equaled. Anthony Hopkins gives such a commanding performance as Hannibal Lecter that we forget he isn’t even in the movie that much. Add Jodie Foster as a plucky rookie FBI agent and Scott Glenn as her mentor, and you have the recipe for a great thriller.

Day 17. Anchors Aweigh

I picked On The Town earlier in the festival. The dynamic duo of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra make another appearance for my day 17 pick: Anchors Aweigh. It’s another fun romp with the two in the Navy. This movie features an iconic scene where Gene Kelly dances with Jerry the mouse in a great blend of life action and animation.

Day 18. Brief Encounter

Most people remember David Lean for his sweeping epics like Lawrence of Arabia. But Lean could also tell riveting stories on a smaller scale. A case and point is Brief Encounter, about a woman who has a chance encounter with a stranger at a railway station and is tempted to cheat on her husband. This sounds like predictable melodrama. But not in the hands of this talented cast and crew. It’s riveting with an ending that will leave you needing tissues.

Day 19. Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Dark comedy is really hard to do. But in 1964 director Stanley Kubrick gave us one of the best. Dr. Strangelove mercilessly lampoons the paranoia of the Cold War. It’s most famous for Peter Sellers playing multiple roles. And that’s certainly quite an achievement. But the big surprise for me was George C. Scott. I knew he could act. But I didn’t know how capable he was of doing comedy. He steals the movie IMHO.

Day 20. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

It’s easy in this day and age to get cynical about politics. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is a purely idealistic fantasy. But what’s wrong with that? And who wouldn’t want Jimmy Stewart as their Senator taking on the corruption in Washington? It may not be realistic, but that doesn’t matter. Anything that makes people think they can bring about positive change in the world is worth recommending.

Day 21. My Favorite Year

My Favorite Year is a purely fun romp. It puts an exclamation mark on the career of Peter O’ Toole. He plays a fictionalized version of Errol Flynn, preparing to go on a weekly variety show. O’Toole not only shows what a good comedic actor he is, but he brings vulnerability to the role. His character is not just a stereotypical partying star and prima donna. He’s also a human with demons. It’s one of his very best performances.

Day 22. Witness For The Prosecution

If you love a good courtroom drama, then Witness For The Prosecution is the movie for you. Starring Charles Laughton as the feisty lawyer, Tyrone Power as his client accused of murder, and Marlene Dietrich as Power’s wife, the movie packs one dramatic twist after the other. Brilliantly directed by Billy Wilder and based on Agatha Christie’s successful stage play, it has an ending that is one of the great twists in all of cinema.

31 Days of Oscar Guide: Week 2

Hope you all are enjoying TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar festival. Here are my picks for week two.

Day 9. Mystery Street

Before we had the TV show CSI and all its spinoffs/imitators, there was a film noir called Mystery Street. One of the first movies to really show forensic science, it’s a captivating mystery surrounding skeletal remains found on a Massachusetts beach. And it features a superb lead performance by Ricardo Montalban. This was a major turning point in his career. Up until this movie, he had been cast in light fare as Latin lovers. This was his transition into a dramatic actor.

Day 10. Network

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” That’s one of the many memorable lines from Network. A ruthless satire about network television, sensational journalism and a movie that predicted the ills of modern media, Network is simply one of the best movies ever made. The cast is loaded with talent. Peter Finch plays protagonist Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves. We also get Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, character actor Ned Beatty (who nearly steals the movie in his one scene) and William Holden in a Stellar performance as an idealistic old school newsman. Network is relevant now more than ever.

Day 11. The Grapes of Wrath

Very rarely is a movie the equal of the book it’s based on. But The Grapes of Wrath is an exception. It brilliantly captures the raw power of John Steinbeck’s novel about the Joad family and their struggle to start a new life in California during the Great Depression. Henry Fonda gave so many amazing performances in his long career. But the one that has stayed with me the most is Tom Joad. This is one of director John Ford’s best. And that’s saying a lot.

Day 12. My Man Godfrey

I love a good screwball comedy. And one of the best of them is My Man Godfrey. William Powell stars as the titular Godfrey, a homeless man discovered in a city dump by socialite Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard). Irene is partaking in a “scavenger hunt.” The first person to bring back a forgotten man wins. Irene then hires Godfrey to be her wealthy family’s new butler. Hilarity ensues as Irene falls for Godfrey and Godfrey interacts with Irene’s nutty family.

Day 13. Little Caesar

The fact that Edward G. Robinson earned not one Oscar nomination in his entire career is mind blowing. But his body of work speaks for itself. The role that made him a star was Little Caesar. As ruthless gangster Caesar Enrico Bandello, Robinson proved he was going to be a force to be reckoned with for years to come in this pre-code classic. It’s a tour de force performance that will stay with you long after the movie ends.

Day 14. The Firm

John Grisham has written a plethora of novels. Many of them are legal thrillers. The film versions have been hit and miss. To me the best one is The Firm, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Tom Cruise. Whatever your feelings about Tom Cruise’s personal life are, you can’t deny he’s one of our most gifted actors. Here as a lawyer recruited to a prestigious law firm right out of law school. It all seems like he’s living the American dream. But then bodies start piling up at the firm. Lawyers are dying under vary mysterious circumstances. Cruise is recruited by the FBI to uncover the firm’s dark secrets. It’s a labyrinth thriller that is riveting from beginning to end. Look for Ed Harris in a scene stealing role as one of the FBI agents.

Day 15. Casablanca

This is a predicable choice from me and I don’t care. I’m on record as declaring Casablanca the greatest movie ever made. The performances by its stellar cast (Bogie, Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt), its pitch perfect script…everything about this movie is perfect. How many movies can say that? It’s also one of the most moving love stories ever told. Michael Curtiz directed a lot of great movies. But Casablanca is his crowning achievement.

See you next week for my week 3 guide!

31 Days of Oscar Guide: Week 1

Greetings, readers! Today is day 1 of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar festival. So which films should you watch? I’ll give you a pick a day for each of the festival’s run.

Day 1. Funny Girl

My pick for the first day is Funny Girl. It’s my favorite movie from Barbara Streisand’s body of work. It features some great songs, including Don’t Rain On My Parade. That’s my favorite of the lot. It’s a brilliantly directed musical. Streisand hits it out of the park in her big screen debut. We already knew she could sing. But in Funny Girl she solidified her solid screen presence, proved she had comedic chops, and had wonderful screen chemistry with Omar Sharif.

Day 2. The Maltese Falcon

We had mystery movies before The Maltese Falcon. We’d even had two other film versions of the book prior to the iconic 1941 movie. But The Maltese Falcon kickstarted the film noir movement. It’s an engrossing mystery, has a stellar cast from top to bottom and is a superb directing debut by John Huston. This was the film that gave us the Humphrey Bogart we would come to know and love. Gruff and hard boiled, he was perfect for noir. And here he’s surrounded by a rich ensemble including Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.

Day 3. On The Town

Great location shooting in New York? Check. The combined charisma and talent of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra? Check. Great choreography and songs? Double check. On The Town is not necessarily Gene Kelly’s best film. That would be Singin’ In The Rain. But it has an irresistible charm. A lot of that has to do with the chemistry of its cast. It’s an absolutely charming musical that grows on me with each viewing.

Day 4. White Heat

James Cagney, along with Edward G. Robinson defined the gangster genre in the Golden Age of Hollywood. And White Heat was one of his defining performances. As Cody Jarrett, Cagney brings a charisma and menace that very few actors have ever been able to pull off. The movie has an iconic ending that will leave you spellbound.

Day 5. North By Northwest

Alfred Hitchcock was one of our greatest directors. And North By Northwest is one of his most flat out fun movies. Cary Grant is a sympathetic and fun Everyman who is falsely accused of murder. It’s an enthralling cat and mouse game that also has Grant sharing the screen with the wonderful Eva Marie Saint and the late, great Martin Landau. It’s brilliant from a technical standpoint, but also just a fun romp of a movie.

Day 6. Caged

Eleanor Parker is an actress who I have really come to appreciate in the last few years. And a real discovery during that time has been Caged. When you hear the phrase women in prison picture, you get images of campy fare like Caged Heat. But Caged is nothing of the sort. It’s a hard look at why we need prison reform and what the institution does to its inmates. I should mention that the supporting cast includes one of my favorites: Agnes Moorehead.

Day 7. Madame Curie

I just mentioned how Eleanor Parker is someone who’s work I have come to appreciate in the last few years. Another actress who fits into that category for me is Greer Garson. The movie that really sold me on her was Random Harvest. But my other favorite movie of hers is Madame Curie. Another of her screen pairings with Walter Pidgeon, it tells the real life story of Marie Curie. Curie was a scientist who did groundbreaking work on radioactivity. The movie brilliantly handles showing us the struggles of scientific research and the obstacles women face in scientific fields.

Day 8. Now, Voyager

Bette Davis to me is the greatest actress we ever had. And one of her many brilliant performances is in Now, Voyager. As Charlotte Vale, Davis is heartbreakingly human. Charlotte is having a nervous breakdown thanks to her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper). Charlotte comes out of it thanks to the help of the caring Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) and a budding romance with Jerry (Paul Henreid). Now, Voyager is a melodrama that never devolves into a soap opera. It’s an honest look at toxic relationships and the power of sticking up for yourself, even to your family when you need to.

I’ll be back next week with my guide to week two. Happy viewing!

Collector’s Corner: Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Extended Editions)

Greetings, readers! Continuing my look at my favorite items in my film collection, this week’s selection is The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

A few years ago I invested in the Blu-ray set of the extended editions. And it was worth every penny! You get Peter Jackson’s amazing film version of Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy. And the transfers to the Blu-ray format make the already phenomenal movies look and sound better than ever before.

Each film in the trilogy includes added scenes (30 minutes for Fellowship, 43 minutes for The Two Towers and 50 minutes for Return of the King). So if you already love these movies as much as I do, these are the definitive versions. My favorite bit of added footage is in Return of the King. Cut from the theatrical version was the death of Saruman (Christopher Lee). It’s not only an important part of the story, but filming the scene is how director Peter Jackson learned about Christopher Lee’s work as a spy during World War II in the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. This is how Lee knew what sound a man made when being stabbed in the back. Lee’s life is worthy of its own movie IMHO.

The discs are loaded with bonus content, including commentary tracks from some of the actors, the production design team and director Peter Jackson. One of the bonus features from The Two Towers that I particularly appreciated was the interactive atlas of Middle Earth.

What Peter Jackson and his cast and crew did bringing The Lord of the Rings to the big screen is one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema. While not every single part of Tolkien’s books made it to the screen, this is as faithful of an adaptation as we could have hoped for. Film technology finally caught up to Tolkien’s sweeping vision. What sets The Lord of the Rings apart from other big budget fantasy/action movies is that the filmmakers used CGI intelligently. It never feels overdone or for mindless action. It all serves a specific purpose and helps build the vast world that Tolkien imagined in his books. All the bonus content makes you appreciate what a labor of love this really was.

Pro tip: If you’re a hardcore fan, watch the extended editions together all in one day. I mean, how do you watch one of the movies and not feel obligated to watch the others?

Collector’s Corner: Blade Runner

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Happy New Year, readers! To start 2020, I thought it would be fun to talk about some of the favorite things from my own movie collection. This week’s pick is the Ultimate Collector’s Edition of Blade Runner. Released in 2007 to commemorate the landmark science fiction movie’s 25th anniversary, it’s loaded with behind the scenes info and comes with a lot of paraphernalia that is sure to satisfy hardcore fans of the movie.

The set comes in a snazzy Deckard briefcase.

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After opening the case, one side contains the movie itself. And this set features not just one cut of the movie. No. It has five cuts of it, including the rare workprint version, which ran 113  minutes and was shown to test audiences in Denver and Dallas. Negative responses to that version led to the modifications for the film’s theatrical cut. The positive reactions led to a successful push to release a director’s cut years later. Why are there so many versions of Blade Runner? Mostly creative differences between the studio and director Ridley Scott. I prefer the director’s cut from 2007. One of the biggest changes is that it drops the voiceover narration. I know that gives the movie a futuristic film noir feel. But it explains way too much of the story and doesn’t let the audience experience it as they should.

In addition to having multiple cuts of the movie, this set has a fascinating behind the scenes documentary called Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. This for me is one of the best making of docs I have ever seen. It gives viewers a good look at what went on behind the scenes of the famously troubled production. It gives you the good, the bad and the ugly of filmmaking and pulls no punches. One of the best little touches is archival footage showing some of the reactions to the film by Philip K. Dick, whose short story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was what Blade Runner was based on.

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The set also comes with some neat collectibles. There’s a replica of the movie’s iconic flying car, a unicorn figurine (a memento of the movie’s wildly debated ending) and lots of artwork prints to honor Blade Runner’s incredible visuals. This set is a must for movie lovers, especially those who love science fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Movies From The Dark Side: Krampus

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This week in my look at darker Christmas movies, I will be covering Krampus. The movie came out in 2015 and I was intrigued by some of the ads for it. But, for whatever reason, I just never got out to see it. Yesterday I finally gave it a watch. And I’m very glad I did. It belongs in the sharp holiday satire category of movies alongside another favorite of mine, Gremlins.

Right from the opening credits, it’s clear that Krampus is not going to be a typical Christmas movie. Cheery music plays over people backed into a store going through the insanity of Christmas shopping. Then we get to meet Max (Emjay Anthony) and all his quirky family members. His mom, Sarah (Toni Collette) is preparing the house for the whole family to visit. This is far from a happy family. Aunty Dorothy (Conchatta Ferrell) is critical of everything Sarah does, including the food she has prepared for the family. Jordan (Queenie Samuel) and Stevie (Lolo Owen) steal Max’s letter to Santa. They proceed to read the letter out loud at the dinner table, putting all of Max’s angst about his family into the open. Furious, Max tears the letter up and throws it out the window. Max wants Christmas with the family to be happy like it used to be.

Then a blizzard hits, knocking out the power and trapping the dysfunctional family in the house. Beth (Stefanie LaVie Owen) ventures out to be with her boyfriend and see if anyone in the neighborhood has power along the way. When Beth doesn’t make it back, Tom (Adam Scott) and Howard (David Koechner) go out and look for her. They are unsuccessful. But on the trip they find signs of what we later learn is the work of Krampus and his minions. Krampus, as Omi (Krista Stadler) later explains, is the demonic version of Santa. Where Santa comes to reward good kids at the holidays, Krampus comes to punish the naughty ones.

One of the first signs of Krampus and his crew is when a gingerbread man is lowered in through the chimney. When Howie Jr.  (Maverick Flack) pulls it off a hook hanging over the fire,the gingerbread man comes to life and Howie Jr. is pulled up through the chimney. This is the beginning of Krampus’ reign of terror, as he and his minions try to pick off Max and his family one by one. Howard gets attacked in the kitchen by more of the demonic gingerbread men. Meanwhile, Linda and Tom go looking for Jordan and Stevie who go upstairs together and don’t come back. The family is attacked by one creepy clown, a demonic teddy bear, and what looks like a possessed Erector set.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect walking into Krampus. But it’s one of the most original movies I’ve seen in a long time. The design of Krampus and the other evil creatures is wonderfully twisted. The production design is a wonder to behold. I liked that this movie doesn’t just give us a dysfunctional family where everyone has one thing to work through and by the end they’re all holding hands and singing Kumbaya. The family does learn a lesson. But it evolves naturally out of the progression of the story. None of it feels forced or formulaic. Krampus is not a mindless slasher movie. It has something deeper to say about family and the ritual of meeting up for the holidays, even when some of them are people you see once a year for a good reason. The screenplay, which was co-written by director Michael Dougherty, is a clever and has a sharp edge to it. The writing balances satirical humor and horror elements very well. And the ending is sure to leave you discussing it.

One last thing I want to mention. It was great to see Toni Collette getting work again. I loved her as the mom in The Sixth Sense. In Krampus, she holds the family together much like she did in The Sixth Sense. The vulnerability of her character is downright heartbreaking at times. And I love her scenes with Max in particular.

Krampus is dark, quirky, scary and has some scenes of good humor when the family members get out in so many crazy situations. I recommend it if you’re looking for an inventive horror movie this holiday season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Movies From The Dark Side: The Nightmare Before Christmas

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‘Tis the season for Christmas movies. I’m more of a Halloween person myself. With that in mind, this month I’ll be covering Christmas movies with a darker edge to them. And the first movie will be The Nightmare Before Christmas. There is an ongoing debate as to whether this is a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie. It has elements of both. But, for purposes of this blog entry, it’s a Christmas movie.

The Nightmare Before Christmas opens with Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon with a singing voice of Danny Elfman) leading Halloween festivities. Jack is the Pumpkin King, leader of Halloween Town. The town is populated by creatures associated with the holiday. While on the surface Jack is enjoying the annual Halloween celebration, privately he is tired of the same routine. He wants to bring something new to the town. The morning after Halloween, Jack stumble across trees in the woods that contain doors which are portals to the other holiday-themed towns. Jack goes into Christmas Town. He is captivated by the whole idea of Christmas. When he travels back to Halloween Town and tries to explain Christmas to the residents, it goes right over their heads. Jack studies up on Christmas all he can. Then he has an idea. Why should Christmas Town be the only place to celebrate Christmas? Jack decrees that Halloween Town will take over the Christmas festivities this year.

All of the Halloween Town residents are assigned different Christmas tasks, including singing carols and building a sleigh to be pulled by a skeletal reindeer. Sally (voiced by Catherine O’ Hara), who is secretly in love with Jack, has a vision that everything will end in disaster. Jack dismisses it and carries on as planned. Jack enlists three of Halloween Town’s trick-or-treaters to abduct “Sandy Claws” and keep him safe. Unfortunately, they turn him over to the villainous Oogie Boogie. Sally tries to save Santa, but is captured herself. Meanwhile, Jack sets off to deliver Christmas presents. But the gifts are more Halloween inspired and terrify the recipients.

News gets out of what happened to Santa and that a Santa imposter is on the loose. The military shoots down Jack’s sleigh and he is presumed dead. But he survives, and then goes off to rescue Sally and Santa, followed by trying to salvage Christmas.

The Nightmare Before Christmas was directed by Henry Selick and produced by Tim Burton, who also was one of the movie’s writers. This is a delightfully twisted animated tale that bursts with imagination in every frame. The whole idea that each holiday has its own town is a very intriguing one.

The real star for me in The Nightmare Before Christmas is its rich visuals. Stop motion animation has become a lost art. But this movie uses it on a scale that you’ve never seen before. Right from the film’s opening song This Is Halloween, it’s clear we’re about to see something we haven’t seen before. Every monster has its own unique personality, including the monster crawling under the bed. The Nightmare Before Christmas has a boundless animation that is refreshing in the age of prequels, sequels and remakes. And, since Tim Burton dreamed up the concept, it has a wicked edge to it. This is not some light, mindless kids movie. It may frighten younger children. But that’s okay. Back in 1939 kids had nightmares about the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. This is a clever and entertaining movie for kids as well as adults.

While the visuals of The Nightmare Before Christmas are often what gets the most attention, Danny Elfman’s work deserves credit. His score and songs make this into a fun and memorable musical. The Nightmare Before Christmas to this day is one of the most imaginative movies I have ever seen. It’s worth checking out at Christmas as well as Halloween.