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Friday, July 19, 2013

Movies You Should Watch: THE BIRDS

THE BIRDS is a movie that has to be watched before it can be discussed. Watch it first, and then come back. Seriously. Watch the movie, pay close attention, and then click here and read the discussion.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Movies You Should Watch: THE APARTMENT

Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT is perhaps the grimmest comedy of all time. I have called it "the funniest movie I know of that has a suicide attempt on Christmas Eve."

THE APARTMENT is centered on C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a junior number cruncher at Consolidated Life in New York. Bud's apartment is used by the senior executives at the firm for trysts with their insignificant others before they head home on the commuter train to the missus.

The loud and non-stop sexual activity in Bud's apartment concerns his neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss, a middle-aged doctor who thinks that it's Baxter doing all the cavorting he hears through the thin walls. He also notices the empty booze bottles piling up in his trash. "Slow down, kid."

Bud's supporters in the executive suites all recommend him for promotion, which gets the attention of personnel director Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). When Sheldrake hears about Bud's key club, he shuts it down for the good of the company -- can't have any scandal -- and starts using it himself. Exclusively.

The object of Sheldrake's extramarital attention is pert elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirtey MacLaine, in her second film role). Sheldrake starts pursuing her in earnest, trading access to Baxter's place for a promotion and two tickets to hit show "The Music Man."

Baxter, for his part, is also sweet on Kubelik and asks her to join him at "Music Man." She agrees to meet him after she has dinner "with a girlfriend."

She stands Baxter up, seduced by Sheldrake at Baxter's place.

When Baxter puts two and two together -- finding that the nominally-married Sheldrake is doing his philandering with Kubelik, at his place -- it is shown visually in a way that should be studied by film students.

When Sheldrake and Kubelik rendezvous at Baxter's place on Christmas Eve, Baxter, inconsolable, goes to a bar and stars downing martinis. He hooks up with a woman whose husband is in jail and takes her to his place, and is unpleasantly surprised to find Miss Kubelik asleep in his bed.

Not asleep, really, more like passed out.

With an empty bottle of sleeping pills in her hand.

Baxter flips and gets the doctor next door to help him revive her, forgetting for the moment that he has a second woman cha-cha-ing in his living room. Which does not win him any points with the doctor, who shelves his displeasure long enough to help the somnolent Kubelik, who is thisclose to death. Further complications ensue, as Miss Kubelik recovers at Baxter's over Christmas as her family worries about her, finally sending her brother in law the cab driver to chase her down. He finds her at Baxter's and is Not Pleased.

As hard as it may be to believe, there is a happy ending to this.

The movie was a great success, and Billy Wilder took home three Oscars for his work, one for directing, one for writing (with collaborator I.A.L. Diamond) and one for Best Picture, which he received as producer of the film.

More interestingly, the film is a document of the changing morality of the postwar era, as promiscuity and infidelity are not only presented in a matter-of-fact manner, but do not inevitably lead to horrible repercussions.

The DVD cover misleadingly gives the impression that the film is a light sex comedy, when it is anything but.

THE APARTMENT is a likeable, enjoyable film -- okay, maybe a little sordid -- that doesn't date as much as you might think considering that it is more than 50 years old.

THE APARTMENT -- a movie you should watch.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Movies you should watch: A HARD DAY'S NIGHT

In "Private Lives," Noel Coward said that it was amazing how powerful cheap music can be. Sometimes it's just a chord. I remember late in an Elton John concert when the between-songs applause was shattered by the anthemic CLANG that started the Beatles' song "A Hard Day's Night."

An entire arena full of people gasped, first in recognition, then at the sheer audacity. Was that it? Is he going to do that song? The Beatles' classic version lets the chord reverberate and die before the song proper started, so we had a moment to contemplate before...

Yep. Pandemonium ensued as Elton and company served up three minutes of nostalgia as we all realized that not only this evening but the long slog since 1964 had been a hard day's night.

The movie was released in July of 1964, a quick six months after the Beatles had taken America by storm on the Ed Sullivan show in January. Shot quick and cheap with hand-held cameras in razor-sharp black and white, the film was intended to cash in on the Beatles' notoriety, quickly, before their popularity faded.

It was being directed by Richard Lester, an expatriate American who had gotten the attention of the Beatles with an 11-minute short called "The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film," featuring British funnymen Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. Lester throws in a series of visual and spoken gags, including the continued references to Paul McCartney's grandfather as "a clean old man" and bits-in-the-background that make every scene look like a panel from Mad magazine. His camera always finds the odd, interesting angle and frequently moves from one interesting shot to another with a zoom or camera move.

The Beatles are cute and charming and incredibly young, simultaneously living and watching their lives unfold as detached observers. The plot, such as it is, involves a trip to a TV studio for a performance. They take the train the night before, Paul's grandfather heads off to a private gambling club while the boys try to find him. The next morning they go to the studio, rehearse, and in the break between rehearsal and showtime grandfather goads Ringo into going AWOL ("You should be out there, paradin', instead of sitting here with your nose in a bloomin' book.") and they try to find him before the show starts without him.

The songs were the draw at the time, but the sheer exuberance of the four lads just having fun is what brings people back to this film some 50 years later. You will see gags now familiar from years of re-use and get a look at the cute one, the smartass, the set-upon one and the independent one who, dragged into an audition for  teen spokesmodel, looks at a picture of the big star and says "That posh bird who gets everything wrong? We turn down the sound when she's on and say rude things" as the oh-so-hip executives throw him out for his effrontery -- and then make a note not to renew her contract.

Timing in at a swift 90 minutes, A HARD DAY'S NIGHT never stops moving and never bores. And if you wondered why people of a certain age freaked out at the Beatles -- now you'll know.

A HARD DAY'S NIGHT -- a movie you should watch.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Chuck, amuck

Chuck Jones and friend
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, famous for its annual bestowals of the Oscar awards, maintains ongoing informational and educational programs all year long.

There will be two tributes to animation this week.

On Thursday, August 19, there will be a panel discussion of voice talents in animation. This is part of the ongoing lecture series sponsored by the estate of Disney animator Marc Davis.

Friday, there will be a tribute to Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones, with all nine of his Oscar-nominated shorts (three of which won) playing.

Both shows will be at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy's headquarters at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Tickets are a bargain-basement $5 and last I looked, tickets were still available.

Movies You Should Watch: PSYCHO

Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film PSYCHO is, perhaps, the most influential film of all time. It has been studied, dissected and analyzed in books and magazine articles — both for academic and mainstream readers — since its release.

Its audacity in killing off its nominal heroine at about the 45-minute mark still shocks today, even among young filmgoers who don't have the reflexive "They wouldn't kill Janet Leigh" reaction. (This is the same reaction that people had some 30 years later watching SCREAM, when they thought that Drew Barrymore wouldn't get killed.)

PSYCHO has been referenced in dozens of other movies, from Brian DePalma's 1976 CARRIE (set at Bates High School) to John Carpenter's 1978 HALLOWEEN (where a character is named Loomis after John Gavin's stoic hardware store owner) to Quentin Tarantino's 1994 PULP FICTION (where a driver gets recognized by a person crossing the street).

The shower murder scene is a classic of filmmaking, with its dozens of shots cut together to give the impression of a violent stabbing.

And, arguably, it killed off the mom-and-pop roadside motel.

Ignore all that for the moment. PSYCHO wasn't made to be studied by film students, it was made as an entertainment. And it's a good movie.

It draws you in from the first frame, when the Paramount Pictures logo is uncharacteristically presented in horizontal black-and-white lines. This is followed by two blasting chords from Bernard Herrmann's driving all-strings music and the opening credits scurrying across the screen led and followed by grey horizontal bars. After the credits it settles down, and fades into a view of a city. The camera aimlessly pans as titles specifically delineate the place and time. PHOENIX, ARIZONA. FRIDAY, DECEMBER THE ELEVENTH. TWO FORTY-THREE-P.M. Could be any place, could be any time. The camera moves forward, pans, picks a building, moves toward a
wall, picks a window, goes in. Could have been any of maybe a hundred windows we've already seen.

It could have been you.

The tale weaves its way around a woman who steals $40,000 and what happens as the people who lost the money try to find it. The $40,000 is a classic Hitchcock plot device known generically as the "MacGuffin": it drives the story and motivates the characters but the audience doesn't care about it.

The movie broke with a number of traditions, including killing the heroine off in the first hour and showing a flushing toilet. Because Hitchcock didn't want people walking in to the middle of the movie and wondering where Janet Leigh was, he instituted a policy that said moviegoers had to watch PSYCHO from the beginning, unlike the then-common practice of letting people wander in whenever they arrived and leaving when they reached the place where they came in.

Paramount didn't want Hitchcock to make PSYCHO at all, pointing out the shady nature of the characters and the events (including two brutal stabbings) but Hitchcock had script approval and really wanted to make a low-budget horror movie like the ones that were so successful at the time, especially Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 DIABOLIQUE. When Paramount said they didn't have studio space for Hitchcock to use, Hitchcock said that was OK, he would shoot it at Revue studios with the crew that shot his weekly TV show.

When Hitchcock offered to buy the film back, Paramount agreed (that's why the opening slide says "A Paramount Release" instead of "A Paramount Picture") and the copyright is held by Hitchcock's Shamley Productions, which also produced his TV show. The deal made Hitchcock a wealthy man. Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in 1966 that PSYCHO cost "no more than $800,000 to make" and grossed $15 million in its two releases in 1960 and 1964, when movie tickets were $1 or less.

But best of all, the movie still holds up. The situations transcend time (although you can't buy a house in Phoenix for $40,000 any more) and the tension still stands. People still hold their breath when Vera Miles goes into the basement and approaches Norman's mother. And although the psychiatrist's explanation of Norman's problem is long and pedantic, the 1960 audience needed five minutes of calm explanation after the adrenaline rush of that last scene.

Universal's latest DVD release of PSYCHO also includes, on the second disc, an episode of the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV show directed by the Master Of Suspense himself, called "Lamb to the Slaughter." To say anything besides "You have to see it" would risk spoiling the surprises.

You have to see it.

Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO — a movie you should watch.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Let's go to the movies

I had never heard of the 1971 film "The Mephisto Waltz" until I read a review of it online and then I watched it on HBO 91 or some other three-digit movie channel and BOY HOWDY is it something. Alan Alda (at the time a working actor and not yet sanctified as St. Hawkeye of the 4077th) is a music journalist who interviews way-creepy classical pianist Curt Jurgens who we can all see (except Alda, of course) has made a Dracula-style deal with The Bad Guy to live forever and be a world class pianist and Alda follows him down the twisted path BUT Alda's wife Jacqueline Bisset, who really loves the guy, sees what's happening and takes some steps of her own.

It has the brightly-lit ambience of a TV movie (it was the only theatrical film produced by TV producer Quinn Martin) and the production values, frankly, suck because if you ask me movies in the '70s were more about the ideas than the special effects but "The Mephisto Waltz" will haunt you long after you've forgotten the summer blockbuster with perfect special effects you saw last week at the 26-screen megaplex.

"The Mephisto Waltz" is playing at the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian theater in Hollywood on Wednesday as a tribute to director Paul Wendkos, who died last year, made more than 150 movies and TV shows and I never heard of him and maybe you haven't either.

Monday, August 16, 2010

It's in the book

A while back I decided I wanted to get a copy of the Hugh Hefner autobiography "Mr. Playboy" so I went to my online used bookstore of choice and found a copy for a buck so I ordered it. I paid more for the shipping than the book.

When it arrived, I was disappointed to see that it was not the hardbound book I had expected, but a paperback review copy.

Uncorrected, yet, so it wasn't even the final version.

My displeasure was mounting until I got to the title page, where I saw this:

And I figured if the uncorrected paperback version is OK with them, I can certainly live with it.