Wednesday, November 30, 2005

 

Can Disney Create "Passion" for Narnia Audience?

Leave it to a Hollywood studio to try and manufacture the repeat of a phenomenon. The Walt Disney Company -- who has invested substantially in the Lord of the Rings-like fantasy, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe -- is hoping the Christian themes of the C.S. Lewis story will play big with church-goers. In fact, the studio has arranged preview screenings around the country (with the cooperation of local churches) to make the film known to the faithful before it opens wide in theaters. Clearly, Disney is trying to repeat the success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which ultimately became one of the top ten most popular films of all time, in large part, due to group ticket pre-sales to churches. Disney, no doubt, is looking for a double punch here. Not only does it want the church-going population to get excited about the film, it's also hoping that the audience that lifted The Lord of the Rings trilogy to more than $1 billion in sales worldwide, will flock to Narnia as well. What Disney fails to realize, however, is that both of those films were TRUE phenomenons. The Passion of the Christ made its money despite the fact that every major Hollywood studio (including Disney) turned it down. Likewise, The Lord of the Rings, was a risk from the start, as New Line Cinema had committed to production of all three films before knowing if the first would be a hit. I realize you can manufacture a blockbuster (War of the Worlds is evidence of that), but can you truly manufacture a phenomenon? I think not. Not that Hollywood cares. For Disney, The Lord of the Rings + The Passion of the Christ = The Chronicles of Narnia. We'll see.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

 

Glimpse of a "Modern Saint" on Film

While films have been, and continue to be, produced about likely future saints Mother Teresa of Calcutta (already beatified by the Roman Catholic church) and Pope John Paul II (already called "The Great" by some of his biographers), the lesser-known, but equally important work of Monsignor John Powis, a man called "a modern saint" and praised by Pulitzer prize-winner Jimmy Breslin in his recent book The Church that Forgot Christ, can presently only be glimpsed on screen in the sequel to one of the most comprehensive documentaries ever produced about the civil rights struggle in this country: PBS's Eyes on the Prize. Appearing in chapters 5 and 6 of Eyes on the Prize II, Fr. Powis recounts his involvement in the controversial attempt to give control of the school board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district of the New York borough of Brooklyn to the community. During the 1967-68 school year, the new interracial school board worked to assemble an integrated teaching staff, only to have tenured teachers in the area rebel, and 350 unionized teachers go out on strike the following year. Powis' work on behalf of the disenfranchised during this tumultuous period in Brooklyn, is indicative of his life-long dedication to serving the poorest of the poor in Brooklyn's most economically depressed areas. I'm proud to call this man my friend. Years back, Fr Powis and I created a pro-bono publication of neighborhood awareness. He's been to my house for dinner, and, at my request, he served as the priest who performed my wedding ceremony. Standing in sharp contrast to the scandals that have rocked the priesthood in recent years, Fr. Powis is a good man, a true priest. He is recognized throughout Brooklyn as a dedicated advocate and mentor who is inspirational to generations of new leaders. There has yet to be a film that has focused exclusively on his many years of good work which include creating and leading organizations for better education, quality housing, safety and social services for the poor. This documentary needs to be done, while Fr. Powis, now 71, is still here to recount his work first hand.

Monday, November 28, 2005

 

Santa on Screen

My children and I just returned from the snowy North Pole (in northern NY) where we stopped in on Santa Claus, during this busy time of the year, to meet with him briefly and get a peak into his production of toys, hats, candy and blown glass. So, of course, it got me to thinking about Santa's appearances on the big screen over the years. The "Santa Claus movie" is a subset of the more encompassing "Christmas Movie," but it has been around almost as long as motion picture itself. This year, I watched a collection of Christmas-themed films made 80-to-100 years ago, among them The Night Before Christmas, a 10-minute adaptation of the often filmed Clement Moore 1822 poem of the arrival of St. Nicholas -- made in 1905 by Thomas Edison's film company -- and Santa Claus, an ambitious 29-minute film presented, in 1925, by Mr. and Mrs. F.E. Kleinschmidt. The 1905 film shows Santa feeding his reindeer and making a few last-minute toys, in his tiny workshop, before taking off for his Christmas Eve delivery. The 1925 version has a brother and sister waiting up for Santa, only to ask him what he does the rest of the year. He recounts for them his activities and in doing so, expands on the Santa legend. This film proudly announces that it was filmed in northern Alaska (for authenticity). The greatest of all Santa movies (and also my pick for the best general Christmas movie ever made) is Miracle on 34th St. In this 1947 film, we find Santa (or is he just a kindly old man with white whiskers and a grand delusion?) filling in last-minute for a drunken Macy's Santa. The film is brilliantly written so that whether this man is in fact Santa Claus, doesn't really matter. There has never been (nor, do I dare say, there will ever be) a more intelligent Santa movie made. In 1984, the Emmy-nominated The Night They Saved Christmas, is a very clever updating of the Santa Claus legend, starring Art Carney as Santa. Television fans may remember that Carney also starred in "Night of the Meek," the Christmas episode of The Twilight Zone, where he played an alcoholic department store Santa who is granted his wish of becoming the real Santa. This film serves as an unofficial sequel to that episode. In this very modern take on Santa, attempts to "explain" much of Santa's magic to a more savvy young audience is sprinkled throughout the environmental allegory of North Pole City being rocked by an oil company's drillings. In 1985, Ilya Salkind, who revived the Superman legend for Warner Bros, attempted to do the same for Santa Claus, with the much hyped Santa Claus - The Movie. While the film begins with a wonderful attempt at bridging the stories of St Nicholas and Santa Claus, the latter part of the film is unfortunately indicative of indulgent spectacles and crude (often flat) comedies of the 1980s. That same year, the Walt Disney Company countered with its own Santa film called One Magical Christmas, which, it boasted, not only had Santa but a Christmas angel as well! Still, nothing really advanced the story of Santa on screen until Tim Allen starred in The Santa Clause in 1994 and its sequel The Santa Clause 2, eight years later. Both of these films (considered, by many, to be modern Christmas classics) explain Santa's seeming immortality by the notion that, every few years, someone new is picked to wear the suit and "be" Santa. An interesting notion. Here's what I liked about it: Allen plays a well-meaning divorced dad, who, in essence, becomes the archetypical "Dad" as Santa! (Allen is reportedly at work on a third installment of the series.) In 2003, Jon Favreau's self-reflexive Elf, expanded on the themes of fatherhood begun in The Santa Clause, as Santa (here Ed Asner) adopts an orphaned human baby that sneaks into his toy sack on Christmas Eve, and then encourages this "elf" as an adult (played brilliantly by Will Ferrell), to seek out his birth father, and try to bond with him. I have no doubt, when Santa needs to be re-invented, yet again, for a new generation of viewers, filmmakers will do just that. The quaint images of Santa in the films from 1905 and 1925, would not enchant today's audience of children. But, I'm sure -- just as The Santa Clause and Elf did -- a new film will come along, aided by today's advanced special effects and writers reared on a steady diet of Christmas movies growing up, to revive the magic of Santa yet again.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

 

Can Comedy Concert Films Stand Up Again?

The other day, I was watching the DVD of Jerry Seinfeld's I'm Telling You For the Last Time, laughing so hard in parts, I could barely breathe, and I wondered, why are there no more live stand-up comedy concert films in theaters? In the late 1970s and early 80s, Richard Pryor made the genre legendary with Richard Pryor: Live in Concert and Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. In the mid-to-late 80s Eddie Murphy ran with this concept in his concert films Delirious and Raw. Bill Cosby's Bill Cosby Himself is an absolutely hysterical concert film. So what happened to this genre? Why is it no longer deemed a viable product for theaters? From a production stand point, these are relatively inexpensive films to make. Could Gilda Radner's flopped 1980 entry into the genre, Gilda Live, directed by former comedian, and Oscar winning director Mike Nichols, have contributed to the demise? Does pay-per-view options and HBO comedy specials eat into the demand for such films? Had the Seinfeld film been released theatrically, it would have made a fortune, and deservedly so. Surely Hollywood can test the waters again. Who knows? They might be laughing all the way to the bank.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

 

Farewell "Mr. Miyagi"

Although he appeared in more than 100 productions during his career, Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, who passed away two days ago of natural causes at the age of 73, will best be remembered for his Oscar-nominated portrayal of the wise Asian martial arts expert in The Karate Kid film series, and as "Arnold," the often-befuddled owner of the local drive-in restaurant, in the long-running TV sitcom, Happy Days. Ironically, in one episode of Happy Days, the main characters learn that Arnold's actual name is Matsuo Takahashi, when they sign up for karate lessons and he turns out to be their teacher. "Do I look like an Arnold?" he says to the perplexed group of teenagers. It was equally revealing for movie-goers in 1984 to watch Morita branch out on screen in his breakthrough performance in The Karate Kid. In Mr. Miyagi, Morita created one of the great supporting characters in cinema. Injecting the character with warmth, pathos and humor, Morita's believability in the role lifted the films to a slightly higher level. He played the character in all four installments of the series, and in the last, The Next Karate Kid, foreshadowed last year's Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby, as he takes a troubled girl (played by Hillary Swank) under his wing and teaches her karate to give balance to her life.

Friday, November 25, 2005

 

Make or Break Year for Movie Musicals

They've barely returned, but, mark my words, 2005 is a "make or break" year for the current crop of movie musicals. Let's face it. There's nothing Hollywood loves more than a money making formula. "What worked last year? Really? Ok, let's do a lot of THAT!" It's really that simple. The current wave of interest in movie musicals is based primarily on two films: Moulin Rouge in 2001 and Chicago in 2002. The critical and boxoffice success of these two films fueled the return of what was once a staple of Hollywood production. However, as happy as Hollywood is to crank out a formula (in this case, the movie musical), it's equally as willing to pull the plug on that formula, as soon as it seems it isn't working. And the wait time isn't long. Sure, it was excitement over movie musicals, which allowed Phantom of the Opera -- one of the most successful Broadway productions of all time -- to finally make it to the screen in 2004, after years of development hell. But it flopped. While it was flopping, two other musicals had already been green lighted for the screen from sheer momentum of the Chicago success. Hollywood was willing to give Phantom a pass. But if this year's offerings -- Rent and The Producers -- tank, look for a quick retreat.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

 

Best of the Season

With Thanksgiving Day here, the Christmas Season has officially begun. What a great excuse for me to list the best Hollywood has given us in seasons past. These films -- listed in ascending order -- should all be seen, at some point, during the month of December, preferably with someone you love.
5- A Christmas Story (1983) - For Christmas films to become worthy Christmas traditions, they must do one thing -- stand the test of time. The same holds true for Christmas songs. New ones may have now nudged out older ones on the radio, but it's taken many of them at least a decade to earn that status. A Christmas Story sort of came and went when it was released (as hard as it is to believe) 22 years ago, but thanks to repeated showings on cable, it has had time to slowly simmer, like a Thanksgiving turkey, and is as important to the Christmas season any of the films further up on this list. Its sense of nostalgia and keen attention to period detail makes it feel like a much older film, which works in its favor. No film has ever expressed the anticipation of Christmas through the eyes of a child better than this one.
4- The Polar Express (2004) - Not yet time-tested, but what a ride! This groundbreaking animated film soared onto screens last year, taking a well-liked children's Christmas book and making into a breath-taking experience for children and adults alike. On the edge of disbelief, children from all walks of life, are invited to take a ride on an express train to the North Pole, on Christmas Eve, and regain their faith in the holiday. Time will tell, but I'm betting this one becomes a classic.
3- A Christmas Carol (1951) - This story by Charles Dickens has been filmed so many times, but none before or after this version, with Alastair Sim as Scrooge, has come close to conveying the kind of redemptive power this story possesses. Nor has there ever been a better portrayal of Scrooge than Sim's. All at once, this movie shows how lonely for some, and still how magical, Christmas Eve can be for those who have lost the spirit of the holiday (but are willing to regain it).
2- It's a Wonderful Life (1946) - Like A Christmas Carol and The Polar Express (and numerous other Christmas movies), the magic of Christmas Eve is central to this story of a man who is ready to kill himself because he thinks his life is worthless. A more recent film entitled Noel, directed by Chazz Palminteri, puts me in mind of It's a Wonderful Life. Like this film, characters, filled with desperation, are affected on Christmas Eve in ways that change their lives. I have said before that It's a Wonderful Life is my all-time favorite film and it is. And it certainly would hold the top spot on this list as well if it were not for...
1- Miracle on 34th Street (1947) - In the nearly 60 years since this film has been released, it remains, simply, the quintessential Christmas movie. Forget the remakes that followed. Never has there been a more brilliant tale of Christmas faith than this film. Is a man, who fills in last-minute for the Macy's department store Santa actually the real Santa Claus, as he claims or a kindly old delusional gentleman? There is a scene in this film that fills my eyes with tears each time I see it. I respect the film for its intelligent approach to the subject matter, and the convincing way in which it pulls us in, until we believe too.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

 

Going Home for Thanksgiving

Today is the day before Thanksgiving Day, so, the movie on my mind is the only one, of which I know, to take place entirely on this day -- Planes, Trains & Automobiles. The film -- written and directed by John Hughes, and starring Steve Martin and John Candy -- is inspired by what is traditionally the busiest travel day of the year -- a day, when it seems, primal urges for us to return to our clan is the strongest. And so, people travel from far and near on this day to spend a Thanksgiving meal with family and friends -- in essence, to reconnect with their tribe. That's what we find Neal Page (Martin) and Del Griffith (Candy) doing in Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Or so we think. Page, we're certain, is desperately trying to get to his family. Griffith -- the obnoxious shower ring salesman with whom he is saddled, after his flight is canceled -- no longer has a family. For most of the film, we don't know this. But when this information is revealed, the broad (at times slapstick) comedy is injected with a bit of pathos and becomes considerably more somber. Like the song says, "there's no place like home for the holidays," and this film confirms that -- whether it's your own family for whom you will do anything to see again, or a new family who, adopts you on this day, and makes you feel at home. Planes, Trains & Automobiles is not without the excesses that mar all of Hughes comedies in the 80s (from Sixteen Candles to Home Alone), but it has a good heart, and recognizes the primal urge this day manifests.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

 

At 70, Is Woody Wonderful Again?

On December 1, Oscar-winner Woody Allen turns 70. He is simply the most prolific writer/director of his generation, and holds the record for most Oscar nominations by a screenwriter, with 13. But it's been nearly a decade since he was last recognized (with Deconstructing Harry). He's been nominated for Best Director six times (and won for Annie Hall). Like a magnet, he's consistently attracted a Who's Who of the best new and established talent in the industry to act in his films. Women in his movies tend to win Oscars. Diane Keaton did for Annie Hall. Mira Sorvino, for Mighty Aphrodite. Diane Wiest, twice, for Bullets Over Broadway and Hannah and Her Sisters. The sheer volume of output alone is astounding. Since 1966, Allen has directed nearly one film a year (sometimes two), giving life to many of the most unforgettable moments on screen. Granted, much of his work tends to cover similar themes, but even derivative Woody Allen is better than no Woody Allen. Now, a new buzz surrounds his latest work, Match Point. It's the kind of buzz that hasn't been heard in a while for an Allen film -- Oscar buzz. Will this be Woody's return to the top? How many of his films have you seen? I've named them below. Be sure to put them on your Nexflix or Blockbuster "to rent" list. Working backwards, from his most recent effort, here are the feature films directed by Woody Allen:
Match Point (2005), Melinda and Melinda (2004), Anything Else (2003), Hollywood Ending (2002), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), Small Time Crooks (2000), Sweet and Lowdown (1999), Celebrity (1998), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Everyone Says I Love You (1996), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Husbands and Wives (1992), Shadows and Fog (1992), Alice (1990), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), New York Stories - segment "Oedipus Wrecks" (1989), Another Woman (1988), September (1987), Radio Days (1987), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Zelig (1983), A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982), Stardust Memories (1980), Manhattan (1979), Interiors (1978), Annie Hall (1977), Love and Death (1975), Sleeper (1973), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), Bananas (1971), Take the Money and Run (1969), What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966)

Monday, November 21, 2005

 

Can Black Bring Back the Live Action Short?

While waiting in the Sheepshead Bay UA theater to watch the Johnny Cash bio-pic, Walk the Line, to my surprise, a short film -- starring Jack Black, and promoting the TBS global warming awareness show, Earth to America -- flickered on screen. This two-minute-and-forty-five-second film -- produced by LA-based production company Stun Creative, and helmed by A-lister director Jay Roach (who has directed the entire Austin Powers series, as well as Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers) -- is a hysterical look at the corporate America's attempt to avoid dealing with the potential dangers caused by its practices. Black, in great comic form, plays an easy-influenced attorney who sues corporate America on behalf of the nation's children. As each camp sits across a huge conference table (Black and six children at one end, the corporate meanies at the other), the lawyer for the corporate side states, "We've invested a lot of money in the Earth, so technically it's ours." But, after staving off bribes (which include copious amounts of candy, a special performance by the fictitious children show singers The Konkle Heads, and cell phones shaped like bees), Black stands up for the children, and in a funny and impassioned speech says, "You think you can buy us off with candy or dancing Gila monsters? You want to mess up a planet? Go to Jupiter...or Uranus!!" In addition to its theatrical run (as part of the pre-feature showcase, The Twenty), the short also aired as part of the TBS special Earth to America on November 20, 2005, and was available to be streamed at AOL, the following day. So. Will this in fact signal a return to American-made, live action shorts, that play in theaters? Can this be the spark that's needed to re-ignite that return? Time will tell. With the creation of an Oscar category focused on it, the animated feature has now hit its stride. Spurred by Michael Moore's activist approach to the genre, the feature documentary, too, is now stronger than ever. Animated shorts (led by the march of Madagascar Penguins, this year) are poised for a return as well. Will the live action short follow? Here's hoping!

Sunday, November 20, 2005

 

Popular Documentaries Make the First Round Oscar Cut

This year, in a continuing trend to honor documentaries that have done well at the boxoffice, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has included a number of well-known titles in its first round cut of films to consider for the 2005 Best Documentary Oscar. Whittling down the field of eligible candidates from 82 to 15, the Academy has included such 2005 audience favorites as March of the Penguins (the second most popular documentary of all time), Mad Hot Ballroom, Rize and Murderball. In years past, often times, audiences would not have even heard of the films being nominated until Oscar night. Even film critics would reason that the Academy nominated unknown documentaries to "give them a chance" to be discovered by audiences. Things have changed in recent years with such popular documentaries as Capturing the Friedmans and Spellbound being nominated and films such as Bowling for Columbine and Fog of War winning. I predicted on September 9, 2005, that Mad Hot Ballroom would be among the contenders (Movies on My Mind, 9/9/05: Let's Dance). It will be interesting to see which of these films will make the final five nominee list.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

 

Hurray for Bollywood!

I was first exposed to Bollywood films in the mid 90s, when, on my lunch hour, I would head over to small Indian section on the East Side of Manhattan for a quick bite at Curry in a Hurry. Devoid of much atmosphere, the one thing this fast food Indian restaurant did provide was a steady stream of Bollywood films, playing on TV screens above the customers' heads. The noise volume in the dining area was often too loud to hear much of the film, but there was no mistaking a Bollywood trademark. In the middle of a dramatic scene, the performers would suddenly burst into song and dance (sometimes as part of a fantasy sequence) before resuming the dialogue. "Bollywood" is a nickname given to the Bombay (now called Mumbai)-based, Hindi-language film industry in India. Bollywood films are usually musicals. The plots are often melodramatic and include elements such as star-crossed lovers, corrupt politicians, twins separated at birth, conniving villains, angry parents, prostitutes with hearts of gold, dramatic reversals of fortune, and convenient coincidences. Although set in modern-day India, in many ways, these films strive to be much like the Hollywood-made melodramas, romantic comedies, and musicals of the 30s and 40s. It's difficult for films with such vibrancy, good nature, and unabashed energy not to be enjoyable. Just the other day, I saw Bollywood/Hollywood, a Canadian film, made in 2002, by director Deepa Mehta. It's a real charmer. The film was a critical and boxoffice hit when it opened in Canada. A clever and funny homage to Bollywood movies, it tells the story of Rahul, a wealthy young man who is desperate to stop his mother and grandmother from interfering in his love life. When they threaten to cancel his sister's wedding unless he finds himself "a nice Indian girl," he hires an escort, named Sue, to pose as his fiancee. But as the film's tagline says, nothing is what it seems to be; and, in true Bollywood fashion, the film sings and dances its way to a predictable, yet satisfying conclusion. Recognizing the immense popularity of these films (one report claims that the Indian film industry is the largest in the world, in terms of ticket sales), major U.S. film studios, including Warner Bros and 20th Century Fox, are, reportedly, setting up offices in India. Although not made in India, Bollywood/Hollywood may offer a glimpse into how future Bollywood productions, with larger budgets, will look. Like the Italian and French new wave of the late 50s and early 60s, Bollywood films are poised to be the next big thing to hit these shores. And a happy ending like that is just what you'd see in one of these films.

Friday, November 18, 2005

 

Deja View

In Hollywood, remakes are certainly not uncommon. In fact, they have grown so exponentially in recent years, while I don't have the exact facts and figures, I could reasonably argue that they may now equal or even surpass the number of original films being produced in a given year. Now, I will admit, there are times when it is interesting to see the same story filtered through the vision of a different director. And, while there have been more misses than hits, when a remake does hit, it seems to justify the process of doing it. However, it's far more rare, and interesting, when the SAME filmmaker has taken a second pass at one of his earlier films. Only three examples come to mind. In 1923, one of the pioneers of film, Cecil B. DeMille filmed The Ten Commandments. Like D.W. Griffith's Intolerance -- which examined the affects of intolerance throughout the ages (including the murder of Jesus Christ) -- DeMille's first version of The Ten Commandments juxtaposed the ancient events involving Moses with a modern day love story that tested the relevance of the commandments. In 1956, DeMille revisited the story. This time, he concentrated exclusively on the ancient story, told on a grand scale, and cast Charlton Heston in the lead role -- a role that would define the rest of his career. DeMille's second version of The Ten Commandments, which was to be his final film, earned seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Alfred Hitchcock first made The Man Who Knew Too Much in England, in 1934. It told the story of an innocent couple caught up in the intrigue of a sinister plot. It was a principle theme Hitchcock would come back to again and again throughout his career. In 1956, now a firmly established brand in Hollywood, he, in fact, came back to the same story, retelling it this time, in Technicolor with James Stewart and Doris Day as the innocent couple. The film won the Best Original Song Oscar for "Que Sera, Sera," setting up what has to be one of the most awkward musical moments ever filmed in a non-musical. In 1956, French filmmaker Roger Vadim made his directorial debut with ...And God Created Woman. The film, which shocked audiences at the time, introduced the actress Brigitte Bardot as she portrayed a sexually uninhibited woman -- married to one brother, but lusting after the other, and teasing many more along the way. The film became something of an international sensation, as it rode the early wave of interest in French films in this country. Vadim's 1988 remake, however, starring Rebecca De Morney, turned out to be a boxoffice dud, earning a Razzie Award nomination for De Morney as Worst Actress of the Year.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

 

The First Casualty of War

It's been said that the first casualty of war is the truth. Of course, that was said long before the birth of the Information Age -- before corporate-owned 24-hour "news" channels (for some keen insights on this, watch Robert Greenwald's documentary Outfoxed), and long before the creation of the Internet. Now comes a report that an Italian documentary on the Iraq War has forced the U.S. Pentagon to retract a statement on its use of white phosphorus in Iraq. The Pentagon had originally stated that white phosphorus (an agent that will cause severe burns, skin irritations, and damage to organs or bones, if exposed to it) was only used for "illumination" during battle. However, when faced with footage from the Italian documentary showing white phosphorus shells being dropped on the city of Fallujah, during last year's offensive (and interviews with two American soldiers who witnessed the results of the chemical's use), the U.S. Defense Department, this Tuesday, changed its story and said the original statement was based on "poor information." (How much of this war is based on "poor information?") The Department admitted that in fact, the U.S had "used [white phosphorus] as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants, though not against civilians." Still, the documentary, produced by the state-owned RAI, refuted that as it showed the burned bodies of civilians -- including women and children. To that, the Department spokesman noted that the U.S. did not sign the section of the 1983 international treaty that barred the use of white phosphorus against civilians. My God! What's going on here? Sounds like a lot of cover-up and backpedaling to me. Not surprisingly, the Italian documentary received little press coverage here in the U.S., and no nightly network newscast even mentioned it. What has happened to the great tradition of American journalism? Do we now need to find the truth about our own country from foreign documentaries?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

 

Remembering John Cazale

John Cazale appeared in just five films over a period of six years in the 1970s (before cancer ended his life), but each one is a classic of cinema. Three of these films won the Best Picture Oscar. The other two were nominated for Best Picture. Cazale is best known as Fredo, the overlooked brother of the Corleone family, in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. It was his childhood friend Al Pacino who helped Cazale win the part of Fredo. Can we imagine anyone else in it? (Cazale even appears in a flashback sequence, from Part II, in The Godfather Part III, and that was nominated for Best Picture as well!) While reprising his role of Fredo for the sequel, he also played Stan, opposite Gene Hackman's surveillance expert, in Coppola's cautionary tale of the right to privacy, The Conversation. That film competed against The Godfather Part II for the Best Picture Oscar of 1974. The following year, he appeared as Sal, alongside his friend Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, Sidney Lumet's brilliant take on a true story of a bank robbery gone awry. His last film was Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter -- winner of 1978's Best Picture of Oscar. It examines the affects of the Vietnam war on group of buddies from Pennsylvania. During the filming of The Deer Hunter, Cazale met, fell in love with, and became engaged to then unknown actress, Meryl Streep, his co-star in the film. When executives at Universal Pictures discovered Cazale was dying of bone cancer, they wanted him removed from the cast. Streep threatened to quit if he was fired. He stayed on, but died shortly after filming was completed. What an amazing body of work over such a short amount of time. One can only wonder if he would have maintained the level of excellence had his career been longer, or if it would have spiraled down into lesser, derivative roles. My guess is, had he lived, Cazale would now have a much-deserved Oscar. Luckily, he left us these five films by which we can remember him.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

 

From Male Prostitute to Pope

It's an acting transformation of Biblical proportions. Perhaps best remembered as the male prostitute Joe Buck, opposite Dustin Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo, in the brilliant Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1969, Midnight Cowboy, Jon Voight -- who has also portrayed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Pearl Harbor and Noah in Noah's Ark, and won the Oscar for his portrayal of Vietnam War veteran Luke Martin in Coming Home -- will now portray Karol Wojtyla (better known as Pope John Paul II) in the miniseries Pope John Paul II, airing on CBS in December. Rival network ABC (of course) has planned a competing TV movie on the pope entitled, Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II. Thomas Kretschmann will portray John Paul II in that version. It was really just a (short) matter of time before films were produced about the life of the late pontiff, who died in April of this year, after serving for 27 years (and whom the Catholic church already has plans to canonize as a saint). While the ABC version will beat the CBS production to the screen, the Voight film will be screened privately for the current pope, (John Paul II's successor) Pope Benedict XVI this week. Ironically, before entering into religious life, John Paul II was an actor in his native Poland. Voight, a lapsed Catholic, who had a rebirth of spirituality later in life, is an interesting choice to play John Paul II. According to Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia, Voight "underwent a spiritual reawakening near the end of the 1980s, often exhorting puzzled interviewers of the need for man's transcendence of evil." In an interview, he gave to Daphne Small of www.AskMoses.com, Voight said, "I want to recommend that we say a little word of gratitude for being here in this adventure of life, grateful for all the gifts we've been given. And that we dedicate ourselves to helping other people enjoy the benefit of these very blessings." In acting style, I have always thought of him as a direct predecessor to actors such as Christopher Walken and Kevin Spacey. (All have won Oscars.) As the prostitute Joe Buck, in the only X-rated film ever to win the Best Picture Oscar, Voight gave a soul to a disenfranchised member of society that would otherwise be tossed aside and forgotten. He also helped to put a face on the Vietnam War with his Oscar-winning performance as a paralyzed veteran in Coming Home.

Monday, November 14, 2005

 

The Evolution of DVD Rentals?

Redbox. Remember that name. It's a wholly owned subsidiary of the McDonald's Corporation that is rolling out automated DVD Rental kiosks throughout the country. These rental stations -- which resemble ATM machines -- will dispense a DVD for $1 a night, to customers 18 years or older. There are no late fees. You simply pay $1 a night for as long as you have that film. The kiosks are updated weekly with the latest releases and are available in McDonald's restaurants, as well as in supermarkets such as Stop & Shop. So, is this the evolution of DVD rentals? Redbox is by no means the only company trying this approach. (CineQuest, FlickStation, ELO Media's DVMatic, and Coinstar are all throwing their hat into the automated DVD rental ring.) Automated approaches are growing in popularity. ATMs are now firmly established, but can you remember a time when the idea of being able to get your money from one of these machines seemed completely foreign? Automated check-out counters at supermarkets and Home Depots are becoming more and more accepted. And, let's face it, people have been getting Cokes and candy from vending machines for decades. So, if automation is the way of the future for DVD rentals, is it a good thing? Blockbuster gave us the DVD rental superstore, but in doing so, sanitized -- and therefore depleted -- much of its inventory. Netflix, in turn, fixed that problem with a greater inventory, but removed the immediacy factor. (You need to wait for them to mail the DVD to you and then you need to mail it back before you get another.) McDonald's Redbox approach (and the approach of other companies that have jumped on this bandwagon) retains the instant gratification aspect of Blockbuster, but saves you a trip to the store itself. Now, you can pick up a DVD with your large fries or your groceries. (Or, as others are offering, in your office before leaving work.) But here's the catch. A Redbox kiosk has a mix of just 45 of the most recent titles available. (Clearly, if you are going to dispense DVDs from a vending machine, like a bottle of Coca-Cola, you are going to be limited in space. Especially if you're going to have enough copies of each title to satisfy your customer base.) By comparison, Netflix boasts more than 50,000 titles. (But you need to wait to watch one.) So it's a trade off. But most of life is a trade off. The question is this: Is there enough room in the DVD rental biz for a Blockbuster superstore, a Netflix online mail catalogue and a Redbox kiosk? Only time will tell.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

 

Divided We Fall

More than ever, we are a country polarized by the kind of exclusive ideology and politics being practiced these days (on both sides of the isle). Loud speaking pundits for the Left and the Right have both capitalized on this polarization by not listening to each other, but rather by shouting over each other's heads. Radio commentators such as Randi Rhodes, who, on a daily basis, venomously rails against the Republicans with statements of how they are "disgusting," "liars," "perverts" and "homosexuals" is no better than the rhetoric being spewed by the equally rabble-rousing Rush Limbaugh for the right. Neither is ever really willing to listen to a caller that may be conflicted, or "on the fence." These shows don't thrive on "fencers." For their brand of divisive rhetoric to work, these commentators need you to either be liberal or conservative, "Blue" or "Red," in other words -- either right or wrong. And we, as a country, seem to have quickly moved into the camps that allow these programs, and others like them, to thrive. For the most part, citizens seem to want to be one or the other. And the media seems happy to categorize them as such. Do you live in a Red state or a Blue state? This kind of thinking is dangerous. The United States divided on ideology once before, and it led to a devastating civil war. Is that what these commentators for both sides want -- to lead this country to another civil war? Stirred up long enough, differences can easily go beyond words and spill over into violence. (Witness Nazi Germany.) What's to be gained from that? Into this mix comes the film This Divided State, a self-proclaimed left-leaning documentary from first-time filmmaker Steven Greenstreet which focuses on a controversial visit Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 911, Bowling for Columbine) made to the state of Utah two weeks before the 2004 U.S. Presidential election. The film also documents how Fox News Channel commentator Sean Hannity went out to Utah one week before Moore to offer a conservative point of view, and how members of the Mormon community there and other local conservatives then rose up to protest Moore's visit and began a campaign to cancel his speech. The makers of This Divided State claim that beyond protest, bribery and even death threats resulted. Now THAT makes for a great movie! Director Greenstreet describes This Divided State as a film about the "state of civil discourse in America and the ongoing battle of 'red versus blue' ideology." I haven't seen it. But a film that begins with a pre-set agenda can not truly be a discourse about anything. As great as Moore's films are, they do not offer a discourse in and of themselves. They want to be, and are, statements. This Divided State is available on DVD. For further information go to http://www.thisdividedstate.com. The filmmakers have also extended their views on the 'red vs blue' mentality -- and offer their opinions on how the Democratic Party can gain momentum as it moves towards 2008 -- at ThisDividedState.blogspot.com.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

 

It's a Small World Afterall

This just released. The Television Academy now plans to create Emmy Award categories to officially honor original podcasts and materials originally created for such portable display devices as the Video iPod and Playstation. This comes on the heels of reports that the porn industry has also christened the Video iPod with original material to download. And all of this follows years and years and years of downsizing the once great movie palaces into multiplexs with rooms, sometimes no bigger than a large walk-in closet. And cars equipped with miniature screens for viewing DVDs and VHS tapes. Now don't get me wrong. I used to think the Dick Tracy two-way wrist TV was a cool device as well. (Remember those?) But Lawrence of Arabia or Saving Private Ryan just doesn't make sense at one square inch. Am I alone in this thought? Is smaller better? Or is it just a novelty that will fade away? I mean, should the works of the great filmmakers of our time be allowed to fit in your pocket? Storing this data digitally on smaller and smaller devices is cool. But displaying them is a completely different story. Don't you think?

Friday, November 11, 2005

 

Terrorist Bombing Kills Producer of Halloween Films

Moustapha Akkad, the legendary producer who launched the highly popular Halloween film franchise in 1978, and served as executive producer of all eight installments, died today from wounds he sustained during the terrorist bombings of three hotels in Amman, Jordan on Wednesday. His 34-year-old daughter, Rima was also killed in the attacks. According to Jordanian TV reports, Akkad was in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt hotel with his daughter -- who had traveled there to attend a wedding -- when the bomber struck. His daughter died instantly while Akkad sustained massive wounds and a heart attack, and passed away today. In addition to executive producing all of the Halloween films -- and, in 1978, giving then unknown director John Carpenter the break that would launch his career to a new level, and make him a household name -- in 1996, Akkad created the massive www.HalloweenMovies.com - The Official Website of Michael Myers, which provides an online community for the millions of Halloween fans around the globe. Other films Akkad produced include The Message (1977) and Lion of the Desert (1981) -- both of which starred Anthony Quinn. His daughter, Rima, who grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from the University of Southern California in 1995 with a degree in International Relations. She obtained a master's degree in Middle East studies at the American University in Beirut, where she met her husband Ziad Monla. At the time of her death, the couple had been married six years, and had two sons (ages two and four).

Thursday, November 10, 2005

 

Battle of the Wal-Mart Documentaries

Thanks to documentary filmmakers such as Michael Moore, Errol Morris, Andrew Jarecki, Morgan Spurlock, Jeffrey Blitz and Luc Jacquet, documentaries are now, more than ever, mainstream interests of movie-goers (no longer regulated to small arthouses and independent movie theaters). Of particular interest seem to be films that don't simply document but actually advocate a change for the better, especially when it relates to U.S. corporations. (Witness Bowling for Columbine's ability to have K-Mart remove bullets from its shelves, or Supersize Me's success in pressuring McDonalds to eliminate its larger-sized meal options.) Now, filmmaker Robert Greenwald -- best known for tackling the Fox News Channel in his film Outfoxed and taking on the Bush administration in Unprecedented -- is shining an unfavorable spotlight on Wal-Mart in his documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, The film debuts this month with an ambitious grassroots distribution plan which includes hundreds of DVD premieres at house parties, churches and universities across the country. For more information go to www.walmartmovie.com. In a preemptive move to counter expected controversy from Greenwald's film, Wal-Mart announced a more affordable health-care plan for its 1.6 million employees and called for an increase in the minimum wage. (Ironically, this was done as news came that Wal-Mart also wants to initiate a new plan to hire only healthy employees, in an effort to keep its medical insurance cost down.) Concurrently, Wal-Mart also distributed a press release highlighting the most negative film reviews in Greenwald's career and promoted the release of a lesser-known documentary by independent filmmakers Ron and Robert Galloway entitled Why Wal-Mart Works: And Why That Drives Some People C-R-A-Z-Y. The pro-Wal-Mart film will be available in Barnes & Noble, Borders and other retailers (but not at Wal-Marts) the middle of this month. The Galloways have admitted in interviews that they timed the release of their film (www.whywalmartworks.com) to coincide with the media attention being given to Greenwald's movie. Communities are often divided when a Wal-Mart opens in their area, some arguing that the large store creates more jobs and offers them deeply discounted items, while others deride the store for forcing smaller businesses in the neighborhood to fold and then taking advantage of low-paid labor. Perhaps Target stores can offer both films in a 2-for-1 sale? Just a suggestion.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

 

Hollywood's Most Unlikely Marriage

Hollywood marriages (in general) are oftentimes seen as somewhat of a joke by fans. And often, the age discrepancies with certain Hollywood couples also leave many fans wide-eyed, wondering (and taking bets on) how long certain unions will last. That's why the marriage of actress Phoebe Cates and Oscar-winner Kevin Kline is all the more amazing. Despite a 16-year difference in age, the two have been married now for 16 years and have two children together -- a 14-year-old son named Owen, and a nine-year-old daughter named Greta. Phoebe Cates, now 41, was only 18 when she made her film debut as the "experienced" girl alongside then fellow novices (and future Oscar-winners) Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage in screenwriter (and future Oscar-winner) Cameron Crowe's 1982 coming-of-age cult classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High. At the time, she was every guy's dream date and became something of the "It" girl in Hollywood, also starring in Joe Dante's Gremlins in 1984 and Bright Lights, Big City alongside Michael J. Fox in 1988. She met (and began to date) Kevin Kline in 1983 when she tried out for the part of Cloe in The Big Chill, a part which ultimately went to Meg Tilly. In 1986, while I was talking with playwright/comedic actor Wallace Shawn in the lobby of the Public Theater in NY, I spotted Cates attending Kline's performance as Hamlet. She was 22 at the time, he was 39. The couple married three years later, just as Kline received the Oscar for his performance in A Fish Called Wanda. Cates predominantly became a stay-at-home mom, but did come out of "retirement" in 2001 to play a small role opposite Kline in the film The Anniversary Party, as (what else?) his wife!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

 

Spidey vs Sandman

As many fans of the Spider-Man comics know, Spider-Man 2, Sam Raimi's blockbuster sequel to Spider-Man left the door open for several possible villains in Spider-Man 3. Three characters in the second film could have been developed into the new Green Goblin, the Lizard, and Man Wolf. But now comes word that Oscar nominee Thomas Haden Church (of Sideways fame) will play the Spider-Man villain The Sandman in the third film. This is a bit of a surprise as The Sandman was not one of Spidey's more arch enemies (like, say, the Vulture). As a teenager, I was a great fan of the Spider-Man comics. During the years I was married, I even lived in Spidey's hometown of Forest Hills, NY for a while. So I had been following the development of a Spider-Man movie for many years. When all of the red tape was finally sorted through, and it was announced that Sam Raimi had been picked to bring the Spider-Man story to the big screen, I thought it was a bold choice, but one that has obviously paid off both aesthetically and in boxoffice returns. I interviewed Raimi before he was selected to direct Spider-Man and found him to be a knowledgeable filmmaker and an affable guy. Turns out, he's also a great fan of the Spider-Man legend, and has reflected that in the films he's made thus far. Unlike Batman and Superman, who live in fictional versions of New York City (Gotham and Metropolis), Spider-Man has always existed in the real New York. Raimi's faithful adaptations of this superhero's legend have clearly reached beyond the Spider-Man fan base catapulting both Spider-Man and its sequel into spots on the list of the top ten most popular films of all time.

Monday, November 07, 2005

 

Films to Heal By

Have you ever heard of Cinema Therapy? I was recently introduced to this concept, and I find it fascinating. The basic idea is for psychiatrists, psychologists, or social workers to use the viewing of certain films as a tool in either group therapy or one-on-one sessions to promote discussion; help bring certain issues to the surface; gage individual reactions to the behavior of characters on screen; and serve as a catalyst for emotional release. It's been argued that most movies serve as allegories, which can then be utilized in therapy. Others have further outlined that the cognitive effect of cinema therapy can be validated by recent theories of learning and creativity which suggest that people have seven separate "intelligences." Watching movies can engage all seven at once: the logical (plot), the linguistic (dialogue), the visual-spatial (pictures, colors, symbols, visual effects), the musical (sound effects and music), the interpersonal (storytelling), the kinesthetic (moving images), and the intra-psychic (inner guidance). The more of these intelligences that are accessed, it's hypothesized, the faster people learn, because each intelligence employs a different method of information processing. This is the kind of power I have always believed movies contained. Haven't you ever gone to a film and felt a catharsis? Or left a movie theater with your head swimming with reactions to the film, or find yourself wanting to talk with someone else about it? Cinema Therapy seems to codify these reactions and harness them for further psycho-analysis when needed for an individual to heal. A number of different sites on the web including www.cinematherapy.com, www.cinematherapy.net, www.cinematherapy-4-kids.com, offer additional information on this approach.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

 

Lean Chicken

Chicken Little -- Walt Disney's first computer-animated film after its break-up with Pixar (with whom it produced Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles) -- opened to better-than-expected boxoffice, scratching up $40 million. However, as one analyst pointed out, that's only $1.2 million more than the opening of Disney's Dinosaur, a go-nowhere film which played on 400 fewer screens back when the average ticket price across the country was $5.48 vs. the current $6.40. I took my children to see the film on opening day and was upset by the fact that I paid more for three medium popcorns and water than I did for the tickets themselves! Thankfully, the film made me laugh, more than I expected it too. Any film with Gary Marshall (even if it's only Gary Marshall's voice) is good for a few laughs. But this slightly-left-of-center retelling of the classic children's story comes nowhere close to the pedigree of the Disney-Pixar team-ups. It was fun to recognize Don Knotts' voice as the Turkey mayor of the town where Chicken Little lives. And some of the inside jokes were fun as well. Overall though, the quality of the animation lacked a certain depth and the story itself was equally as thin. The filmmakers' attempt to create an emotional center for the film is far too obvious. The characters are not allowed to develop emotions (as they were for example in The Incredibles) but rather have them foisted upon them in a stream of psycho-babble. I doubt that Chicken Little will have the legs to have much of a boxoffice run, or the wings to fly into a strong DVD release. But regardless of its intake, there simply isn't enough meat on Chicken Little for it to take its place alongside its legendary predecessors.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

 

Chaos on the Set

In what will most likely go down as one of the most ironic moments in movie-making history, a drunken New York firefighter was arrested for crashing a stolen truck into the set of director Oliver Stone's (yet untitled) 9/11 movie, which is the first major motion picture to tackle the events of that day -- a day in which the bravery and heroism of firefighters became legendary around the world. Eugene Scharf -- a 26-year-old Harvard graduate who had become a firefighter just five months ago -- was arrested for grand larceny, DWI and criminal possession of a weapon (for a knife he had tucked in his pants) after he crashed into the set on W. 13th St and Ninth Ave in Manhattan. Oscar-winner Stone, who has built a career on making controversial, thought-provoking films such as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and JFK was unfazed by the event, according to newspaper reports. (Stone himself was arrested early in the year on DWI charges in Beverly Hills, CA.) The film, which stars Oscar-winning actor Nicolas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas), will tell the story of Port Authority police officer, John McLaughlin, who was rescued after being trapped in the rubble for almost 24 hours after planes hijacked by Islamic terrorists crashed into the Twin Towers, sending them to the ground and killing 3000 people. It's the first major motion picture to dramatize the events of that day. An independent film entitled The Guys, which focused on one fire chief's struggle to write eulogies for eight men he lost on 9/11, starred Sigourney Weaver, and was released in 2002.

Friday, November 04, 2005

 

iPorn

I guess size doesn't matter. Apparently people want porn -- even if it's puny -- to be portable. Last month, Apple Computer announced a video version of its very popular iPod music player. I argued at the time that this was not a step forward for motion pictures and that watching a movie, the size of a matchbook cover, was not advancement. (see Movies on My Mind: 10/17/05, "How Many Movies Can You Fit on the Head of a Pin?) Now comes word that the adult film industry has begun to produce five minute movies specifically designed to be viewed on the Video iPod. According to newspaper and radio reports today, one adult website claims it logged 500,000 downloads of its sexy "featurettes" (three-to five-minute film clips) in the first 24 hours after marketing to the new iPod-owning audience. Vivid Entertainment Group, a major adult film production company, also announced that it now plans to shoot shorter films specifically for the iPod, and other portable motion picture devices. Sin City, a company based in Chatsworth, CA -- which already offers trailers of full-length adult films for the Sony PlayStation Portable -- has announced that it too will produce full-length adult films for the video iPod. This raises important questions of regulations and public display of such material. But more importantly, does watching such films on a one-inch screen really provide the desired results? Talk about shrinkage!

 

Your Neighborhood on Screen

How cool is it to go to the movies, and as you're watching, recognize a building, or a street, or an area you know or live in? I always enjoy it when this happens. I can think of a handful of films that have this personal connection for me. The first time this happened was with the film Hero at Large, starring (the late) John Ritter. In the film, he plays a down-on-his-luck actor who takes a job dressing up as a screen superhero to promote an upcoming film and ends up becoming a folk hero himself when he stops a robbery while wearing the costume. Early in the film (to promote the movie within the movie), he's dropped off in front of The Elmwood theater, a now defunct theater in Queens, NY, that holds many memories for me. Likewise in Howard Stern's Private Parts, about one third of the way into the film, he escorts a starlet to a movie premiere and the theater they enter is The Drake, another, now defunct, theater I frequented as a teenager and young adult. It now serves as an adjunct to the restaurant next door. I was in Pennsylvania on vacation when I went to see Coming to America, so it particularly surreal to watch Eddie Murphy's character relocate to (my hometown of) Queens, NY and take a job at McDonald's (in the film, McDowell's) on Queens Blvd and to watch him look down the boulevard at the Queens Center shopping mall (where I have often shopped). Much of Spider-Man takes place (and was shot) in and around the quiet Tudor-styled neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens, an town where I lived for a few years, while I was married. (I even watched a scene from Spider-Man being shot on location while I was there.) It was a kick to recognize the restaurant Louie's of Port Washington, NY (a town where I worked for several years, and a place where I had lunch and dinner many times) and the Main St it's on in the film Meet the Parents. All of The Godfather films, Abel Ferrara's China Girl, Norman Jewison's Moonstruck and Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets all use areas of Little Italy (and Moonstruck, areas of Brooklyn) that I have visited many times. I also recognize parts of Queens in Scorsese's Goodfellas as well. And scenes from When Harry Met Sally... and Annie Hall take place on the streets of Greenwhich Village I passed on a daily basis as a student at NYU. It never fails to be fun to spot these places on screen.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

 

The Most Filmed Character Ever!

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the "Most Portrayed Character In Films" is Sherlock Holmes, the master detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. According to Guinness, Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed by at least 75 actors in more than 211 movies since 1900. In addition to Basil Rathbone (perhaps the most famous portrayal of Holmes), other actors who have taken on the role include: Buster Keaton, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, George C. Scott, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Roger Moore, and Leonard Nimoy. Other camps contend that not Holmes, but Dracula, the vampire created by Bram Stoker holds the record for the most filmed character. In addition to Bela Lugosi's signature performance, the Transylvanian count has been played by Christopher Lee (who also played Holmes!), John Carradine, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, Max Schreck, Klaus Kinski, Udo Kier, Rutger Hauer, David Niven, Michael Nouri, Miles O'Keeffe, Jack Palance, David Carradine, Peter Fonda, Forrest J. Ackerman; (and spoofed by) Charlie Callas, George Hamilton, Judd Hirsch, and Leslie Nielsen. Still others hold that, in fact, Tarzan, created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, is the most filmed character. In addition to the best remembered performance by Johnny Weissmuller, the "King of the Jungle" was also played on screen by Elmo Lincoln (the first to portray him), Buster Crabbe, Joe Lara, Gordon Scott, Ron Ely, Christopher Lambert, Miles O'Keeffe (who also played Dracula!) Lex Barker, and Bruce Bennett. But regardless of the record holder, the fact that these three characters have been revisited so often is a testament to their enduring iconographic existence in the collective unconsciousness of the movie-going public.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

 

Knotts & Conway

They weren't Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello, but, from 1975 to 1980, Don Knotts (best known as the bubbling deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show and the befuddled landlord Mr Furley on Three's Company) and Tim Conway (best known as a supporting player on the The Carol Burnett Show) appeared together in five films that I remember as harmless Saturday matinee fun. The two first appeared together on screen in 1975 as inept bank robbers in the Walt Disney live action western comedy, The Apple Dumpling Gang. The following year, they returned with supporting roles in another Disney comedy, Gus, a movie about a mule that steps in as a kicker for a football team. The duo reprised their original roles together in 1979 (this time as the stars of the film) in The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. That same year, they starred in The Prizefighter, a lightweight outing that had Conway playing a boxer and Knotts his trainer, as the two get mixed up in a fixed fight, with their beloved gym on the line. In 1980, for their fifth film, The Private Eyes, the two paid homage to Abbott & Costello as they investigate a murder mystery in a spooky mansion that appears to be haunted. These films are silly, sure; but to a kid who loved movies, they were also fun to watch on a Saturday afternoon, with some popcorn and Goobers.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

 

Saintly Cinema

Today is the Feast of All Saints (a Catholic Holy Day, formerly known as the Feast of All Hallows, which in turn is where All Hallows' Eve or, as we know it, Halloween, gets its name). Three outstanding films about saints come to mind. The 1943 film The Song of Bernadette relates the story of St Bernadette's vision of Blessed Mother in a garbage dump in the French town of Lourdes. The film earned 12 Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) and won four, including Best Actress for Jennifer Jones as St. Bernadette. The 1964 film Becket, is the story of St Thomas Becket's unexpected opposition to King Henry II after being appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Richard Burton as Thomas Becket. It won the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Following on the theme of Becket, the 1966 film A Man for All Seasons tells the story of St Thomas More and his refusal to side with King Henry VIII over the Pope on the issue of divorce -- a decision that ultimately resulted in his death by beheading. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won six, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor for Paul Scofield as More. These are the only performances to ever win an Oscar for a saint on screen (unless you count Edmund Gwenn's wonderful performance as Saint Nick in A Miracle on 34th St.) Other films focusing on saints, such as The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima or Franco Zeffirelli's film of St Francis of Assisi, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, didn't fare as well. In the 1970s and 80s, Hollywood turned to fiction (Resurrection) and other faiths (Gandhi) for inspiration, although the 1986 foreign entry Therese (about St. Therese of Lisieux) became a critical favorite. It will remain to be seen if the success of The Passion of the Christ will renew an interest in films of holy men and women.

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