Tuesday, August 26, 2008

World's Best Musical and Concert Films

  • A Coal Miner's Daughter
  • A Hard Days Night
  • All that Jazz
  • An American in Paris
  • Amadeus
  • Black Orpheus (France/Portugal)
  • Bride and Prejudice (India)
  • Carmen (Spain, flamenco version)
  • Chicago
  • How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
  • The King and I
  • The Music Man
  • My Fair Lady
  • Singing in the Rain
  • Strictly Ballroom
  • West Side Story
Concert Films
  • The Cranberries: Live
  • Dead Can Dance: Toward the Within
  • Jimi Hendrix (documentary)
  • The Last Waltz
  • Led Zeppelin (2 dvd, live history)
  • Peter Gabriel: Secret World Live
  • Pat Metheny: Speaking of Now: Live (easily the world's best guitarist!)
  • Police: Synchronicity Concert
  • Stop Making Sense
  • The TAMI Show
  • Woodstock (documentary)
Runners-up: Cabaret, Dames, Damn Yankees, The Gay Divorcee, Golddiggers of 1933, Swing Time, Oliver! [Updated after seeing West Side and Music Man in widescreen! It makes ALL the difference, seeing the director's intended view.. they oughtta outlaw fullscreen in Hollywood] Most musicals are vastly overrated, some are downright unwatchable (anyone get through Tommy or Superstar without brain damage?). In Oklahoma they resorted to spelling out the state's name, now that's a lack of lyrical ingenuity. Sad that Marni Nixon sang in My Fair Lady, The King and I, and West Side Story and got NO billing credit at all! The best classic Broadway style musical for me is My Fair Lady. Incredible lyrics, so good that Rex Harrison didn't even have to be able to sing to win an Oscar and a Tony. Based on George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, it had a solid artistic foundation to begin with. Of course, the ripoff in the movie is that Julie Andrews, who made the stage role what it was, was passed over for Audrey Hepburn (Marnie Nixon had to dub her singing), everyone's box office darling; Andrews won the Oscar that year anyway for Mary Poppins. Listen to the original cast recording on CD to hear the difference with Andrews! Dames (34), not a great film, but is a great example of the insanity of early Busby Berkley; he's responsible for the musical numbers, original choreography, and inventiveness: neon violins played by dancers in the dark, all forming one giant violin; dancers forming a giant eyeball and a singer rising from the iris ("I Only Have Eyes for You"); floor cams sliding throught the spread legs of 100 grinning dancers; naked dancers bathing silhouetted behind shower curtains; the giant Carmen Miranda fruit hat - Busby was tripping 40 yrs before anyone else, and everyone else pales in comparison! Amadeus is of course, the play about the life and music of Mozart, not a classic musical but still full of music (maybe "too many notes", inside joke). Best Picture Oscars went to Amadeus, Chicago, and My Fair Lady. This Carmen, of the 18 or so, is Carlos Suare's flamenco version, where a dance troup is rehearsing for a flamenco performance of Bizet's Carmen and two dancers lives begin to mirror the story. This is easily the best dance film ever made. Bollywood's Bride and Prejudice is a total trip - who else could have thought of a musical comedy of Austen's Pride and Prejudice? The gigantic dance number with the women teasing the men is worth the price of admission alone (but lose the ballads); throw in world-class beauty Aishayra Rai and you're in nirvana! TAMI (for Teenage Awards for Music International) was an early concert film (from 66?) that had James Brown, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, many others, and kind of set the precedent for modern concert films.

Monday, August 25, 2008

World's Best Crime Films

The worlds best crime and mystery films Films in gold won Best Picture Oscars®
  • Atlantic City
  • Chinatown
  • Chungking Express (China)
  • City of God (Brazil)
  • The Conversation
  • The Departed
  • Diva (France)
  • Double Indemnity (bw)
  • Gangs of New York
  • The Godfather
  • The Godfather, Pt. II
  • Goodfellas
  • The Grifters
  • Heavenly Creatures
  • House of Games
  • La Femme Nikita (France)
  • The Lives of Others (Germany)
  • The Maltese Falcon (bw)
  • Memento
  • Night of the Hunter (bw)
  • Once Upon a Time in America (long version)
  • Out of the Past (bw)
  • The Player
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Run, Lola, Run (Germany)
  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • Sleuth
  • Sunset Boulevard (bw)
  • Taxi Driver
  • Traffic
  • The Usual Suspects
  • Witness
Runners-Up: American History X, Body Heat, Fargo, Gorky Park, Klute, The Last Seduction, Little Caesar, Mystic River, The Spanish Prisoner, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Topkapi, The Yakuza Let's see, four entries from Scorsese and three from Coppola, also Sergio Leone - wonder why Italians make great crime movies? Night of the Hunter is the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, with Robert Mitchum as a villainous preacher so bad that he had both "Love" and "Hate" tattooed on his fingers. The Conversation and The Lives of Others both cover the subject of electronic eavesdropping, and Lives won both a US and a British Academy Award for Foreign Language film. Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity is given credit for inventing film noir in 1944, and was the first of Wilder's b&w masterpieces, which include Lost Weekend, The Apartment, Some Like it Hot, The Fortune Cookie, One Two Three.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Movies about Movies: The Player

This is part of the Goat Dog "Movies about movies blogathon", check it out at: Goat Dog Blogathon The Player is my favorite Robert Altman film, even surpassing the superb western McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Tim Robbins portrays a film producer looking for that "next major project", who, through an anonymous blackmailer, become involved in a mystery, and his character degenerates into one who may actually stop at nothing to protect his ego and his wallet, and perhaps find love as well; with the always delectable Greta Scacchi in his sights, who could blame him? The mystery begins when he gets the first in a series of threatening postcards, presumably from a writer that Robbins shined on rather than listen to him pitch his script. As the postcards continue, the plot becomes a twisty puzzle, involving blackmail, murder, infidelity, paranoia, guilt - all the games that make Hollywood tick, inside and outside of the films themselves. The film within the film is going to be "a different kind of Hollywood blockbuster, one without stars", as the writers proudly proclaim, and eventually includes both Oscar winners and a perfect parody of Hollywood film endings. The Player is not only peppered with movie references, it begins with an extremely long tracking shot where various studio people discuss everything from classic films to potential projects to the longest tracking shots in film history. An important plot element involves mistaken identity, a favorite Hitchcock device. The circular references don't stop there: the guest list of cameo acting appearances includes something on the magnitude of 16 Oscar winners; the dvd actually includes a special feature allowing the viewer to click any celebrity and bring up that person's scene in the film, even if they're just in the background or walking by. The fact that we may not ultimately care about the fate of these characters is a perfect mirror for an industry that doesn't care about the fate of the characters (or the audience) either, just the amount of revenue that the project may eventually attract. The only really sympathetic character drawn by Altman is perhaps Cynthia Stevenson, in probably her best performance, playing Tim Robbins' studio subordinate and girlfriend, who is apparently more attracted by his power than his less-than-winning personality or commitment. The Player is a perfect modern complement to Sunset Boulevard, as each presents the cynical and parasitic side of Hollywood and its shallow, self-centered denizens. This had to be the most fun Altman had making any movie, sticking the satirical dagger into his own industry, and it's certainly a treat for film fans as we are left to solve the mystery along with the main character. We are all made players in this particular game of Altman's. Other classic films about films include Sunset Boulevard, The Bad and the Beautiful, Singin' in the Rain, The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Day for Night (a French pastry), Fellini's "8 1/2" and the best film about a play, best picture winner All About Eve. Special mention must be made of my favorite Italian film: Cinema Paradiso is a wonderful tribute to the effect of movies on ordinary lives.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Double Indemnity and the Birth of Film Noir

Double Indemnity (1944) was Billy Wilder's first serious film, and is given credit for the birth of film noir, literally "night film", which describes a visual style and mood of a type of dramatic film, usually crime, that's much more gritty and realistic than most films prior to this era.

Film noir was mostly shot at night or in dark interiors; there's lots of use of shadows, dimly lit edges, light from Venetian blinds (which simulates bars across characters), backlit smoke (Indemnity uses both cigars and cigarettes, Out of the Past is a tribute to cigarettes, each star is always smoking onscreen, especially when it gets tense).

Film noir got its origins in 30's detective stories, often called pulp fiction, gritty stories with sex, violence and seedy characters. Even the heros were often common people with street wisdom, often with a tough upbringing. Soldiers returning from World War 2 and a cinematic audience that had survived the Great Depression demanded more adult films in theme, subject, and style.

Wilder was impressed by author John Kain's pulp novella of "Double Indemnity", the same author of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but it was considered unfilmable due the the Hayes Code (of censorship). The script went through years of re-writes and applications before being allowed to be filmed in 1944. The Hayes Code first suppressed sex in films, then violence, later socialism, and was used to pass judgment on over 28,000 works of art! Apparently no freedom of the arts exists, just more minor ones that don't affect as many people, such as the press (who reads?) Wilder then had a difficult time casting the lead parts, two murdering adulterers.

He wanted Barbara Stanwyck all along, but eventually had to challenge her to get her to take the image-shattering role, "are you an actress or a mouse?" After several refusals by actors, including George Raft, who had a knack for turning down breakthrough parts like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, he convinced Fred McMurray to break his screen image of light romantic comedies to attempt something serious. His first scene with Stanwick, when he meets her at her home in a towel, uses his comedic skills along with some terrific dialogue.

Wilder also convinced leading actor Edward G. Robinson to take a non-starring character role, meaty enough for at least two important speeches that Robinson absolutely nailed. Crime novelist Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye) was brought in for his realistic dialogue, plenty evident here especially the opening scenes between Stanwyck and McMurray, but he, an introvert, and Wilder, an extrovert, didn't get along at all and never worked together again. Ironically,they were nominated for an Oscar together for their screenplay. Wilder later used Chandler as his model for his Oscar-winning Best Picture The Lost Weekend.

Double Indemnity was nominated for these 7 Oscars (but won none):
  • BEST MOTION PICTURE - Paramount (Going My Way won!)
  • DIRECTING - Billy Wilder
  • ACTRESS - Barbara Stanwyck
  • CINEMATOGRAPHY (Black and White) - John Seitz
  • WRITING (Screenplay) - Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler
  • MUSIC (Music Score of a Drama or Comedy) - Miklos Rozsa
  • SOUND RECORDING - Paramount Studio Sound Dept, Loren L. Ryder, Sound Director

Other classic film noir: Out of the Past, The Night of the Hunter, Panic in the Streets, D.O.A., The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, The Third Man.

Modern Noir: Wait Until Dark, Diva (France), Chinatown, Shoot the Piano Player (France), House of Games, Taxi Driver, Blood Simple, Body Heat, The Silence of the Lambs. The style is also clearly evident in parts of other classic films such as In the Heat of the Night, The Godfather, Batman, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Hustler, and The Departed.

Thanks to Beth G for suggesting Double Indemnity

Friday, August 22, 2008

Great Directors: Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder was born in Austria-Hungary, in what is now Malopolski, Poland. As a newswriter, he emigrated from Austria to Berlin writing for their biggest tabloid. By the time Hitler came to power in 1933, he had written some screenplays for the Berlin film industry, starting in 1929. With Jewish ancestry, Wilder had to flee the Nazis, first to Paris (directing Mauvaise Graine there in 1934, starring Danielle Darrieux), then to the U.S. when invasion of France seemed likely.

He went to Hollywood and started as a screen writer for Ernst Lubisch and others, the most famous being Ninotchka (39). He then began directing himself in the U.S. with The Major and the Minor (42) with Ray Milland and Ginger Rogers posing as a 12-yr old. He made his stylistic breakthrough in his third film with the crime classic, Double Indemnity in 1944, which "invented" film noir and garnered 7 Oscar nominations. Wilder then began to direct a plethora of film classics, including:
  • The Apartment (bw, Best Picture winner, 5/10 Oscars)
  • Ace in the Hole (bw, 1 nom)
  • Lost Weekend (bw, Best Picture, 4/7 Oscars)
  • The Spirit of St. Louis (bw, 1 nom)
  • Stalag 17 (bw, 1/3 Oscars, Willam Holden, best actor)
  • Sunset Boulevard (bw, Pic nominee, 3 Oscars, 11 noms)
  • Witness for the Prosecution (bw, BPic nominee, 6 noms) Comedies:
  • The Fortune Cookie (bw, 1/4 Oscars)
  • The Front Page (bw, 3 Oscar noms)
  • Irma la Douce
  • One Two Three (bw)
  • Sabrina
  • The Seven Year Itch
  • Some Like It Hot (bw, 6 Oscar noms)
Wilder was nominated for 21 Oscars, 12 in writing, 8 in directing, and won six. He won for directing Lost Weekend and The Apartment (and got another for Apt for Best Picture), and won for writing Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, and The Apartment. He personally picked up three for The Apartment. It could easily be argued that Billy Wilder is the greatest American film director.

He died in 2005 at the age of 95.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Great Film: Zhang Yimou's Hero

Hero (2002) is a Chinese epic from director Zhang Yimou. Actor Jet Li said the screenplay (by Li Feng, Zhang Yimou, and Wang Bin) was the best he had ever read and left him in tears. They often call this Jet Li's Hero to distinguish it from an earlier U.S. film (also worth watching but nothing great) starring Andy Garcia and Dustin Hoffman. Along with Li, the film also stars the most popular actress in the world, Ziyi Zhang, shown in the still shots above from Hero. The visually stunning style of Hero is the ultimate for an action-adventure film, going even one level higher than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's no wonder that Quentin Tarantino wanted to get his name on this one as "Q.T. Presents....", like he had anything to do with creating this masterpiece! He did the same thing to the terrific crime film in two parts, Chungking Express, which inspired Pulp Fiction. The story is a story within the story, as a warrior relates his tale to the king of Qi'in (which became China), of how he killed three assassins from neighboring kingdoms who were plotting to kill him. Bose found the film so incredible that it used a famous sword master sequence in a tv ad for a new tv surround sound system; they claim to have a hidden camera on a family who is appropriately 'jaw-dropped' by the film and sound. Hero is full of memorable scenes and sequences, I won't describe any, they have to be experienced at least twice. Watch it once with subtitles, then again without any distractions to the visual poetry because this is the cinamatic art at its highest level. Other great visual action films: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (China, Ang Lee); Spiderman; The Matrix; House of Flying Daggers (China, Z.Yimou); The Seven Samurai (Japan); The Empire Strikes Back; The Replacement Killers; Diva (France); Aliens; The Road Warrior; Run, Lola, Run (Germany).

Friday, August 8, 2008

Zhang Yimou and the Olympics Opening Ceremony

Did everyone hear that awesome Chinese director Zhang Yimou (see Hero above) is in charge of the opening ceremony at the upcoming Olympics? They're starting at 8:08 pm on 8/8, because 8 is a lucky number in China! Curious, this is the US "delayed broadcast time", so it's not starting at that time over there... They say "expect big fireworks" since China invented fireworks... with Yimou in charge, can we also expect martial arts (Hero), mountain peasants (The Road Home), and Ziyi Zhang (Hero, Road Home, Crouching Tiger), lots of RED (Raise the Red Lantern)? Stay tuned, it should be a blast, lol... UPDATE (after the opening): WELL, THEY BLEW ME AWAY TOTALLY! He did include martial arts, mountain peasants, lots of all colors, mucho fireworks, and the incredible drummers.. not to mention people running all over the globe, the giant LED field screen, the panorama above the stadium featuring waterfalls, waves, birds, clouds, the giant scroll for the torch lighter to float (run) on... UNBELIEVABLE! So much better than anything WE could come up with, or could even afford. ("As if!") Best opening ceremony ever, they can retire the trophy! - Bob Costas [If you missed it, buy the DVD later!]

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Recently Viewed Films, July

A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957, bw) 5* (top rating) This is an overlooked masterpiece, simply jaw-dropping. It's about the misuse of television to influence the masses, to buy cheesy products, to vote for cheesy politicians, even to think the way of the charismatic "everyman" star, terrifically played by Andy Griffith in a rare dramatic performance. Patricia Neal turns in perhaps her best performance, and there's a young Walter Matthau (excellent), and a very young Lee Remick (eye-popping candy as a baton twirling teen). This film was way ahead of its time, and Kazan was unfairly shunned by Oscar and critics alike after the HUAC hearings. To Live (Zhang Yimou, China, 1994) 4.5* This is yet another undeniably classic Yimou epic, winner of the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1995, and Best Actor for Ge You (he's awesome). This film spans about 40 years in the life of one family, from before the Maoist revolution up to the 80's. Gong Li is also superb as You's wife (her best performance to me), and all the supporting cast is perfect. This is filled with unforgettable scenes, some with thousands of extras. An American film this good would have won 6-8 Oscars. Goodnight Mister Tom (Jack Gold, Masterpiece Theater, 1999) 5* This television film is John Thaw's (Insp. Morse) finest achievement, a true work of art. One of the biggest hearted films I've seen, you'll shed tears of joy. A truly inspired work, it's a disarmingly simple story of an elderly village resident (a widower) being forced to take charge of a London child evacuee during WW2. One of the highest rated films at Netflix from viewers (4.2, anything above 4 is extremely rare). From the novel by Michelle Magorian, this is truly a film that everyone should see, a rare gift to mankind. Touching the Void (Kevin MacDonald, British, 2003) 3.5* Winner of a British academy award for Best British Film, a re-enacted pseudo-documentary of a mountaineering accident. Gripping and tense, hard to watch, and a nearly unbelievable story. The first half moves better than the last, my only criticism. Gorgeous Peruvian Andes scenery; not for the weak-hearted. Forbidden Games (Rene Clement, France, 1954, BW) 3.5* This anti-war film has an amazing performance by 5-8 yr old Brigitte Fossey (it began with a short film, was later expanded into full-length after Jacques Tati convinced Clement it was worthy). There are some disturbing images in the beginning, then the film settles into a pastoral story about childhood innocence in a rural setting. Not really the masterpiece some claim, but still worth watching. The excellent Criterion dvd includes alternate beginning/endings, as well as interviews with Clement, and two with Brigitte Fossey, one recent, one as a teenager, and she's beautiful at any age.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Oscar Loves Hookers

In 95, Susan Sarandon became the 1st actress to win an Oscar playing a nun (Dead Man Walking). That same year, Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite) became the 8th to win one for playing a prostitute! (By the way, Woody Allen now has 21 Oscar nominations, 3 wins, and is responsible for at least 4 awards for actresses: Diane Keaton and Diane Wiest, with 2, added to Sorvino) The others: Anne Baxter (46), Claire Trevor (48), Donna Reed (53), Jo Van Fleet (55), Dorothy Malone (56), Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley Jones (60), Jane Fonda (71)... hmmm..... guess which more people can identify with (?) - lol...

Sunday, August 3, 2008

2008 Emmy Nominations

Here's all the nominations for the 60th Emmy Awards (for Television), coming to ABC on Saturday, Sept 13th at 8 p.m.: http://cdn.emmys.tv/awards/2008pte/60thpte_noms.php#top I'll have to admit that some of my favorites got nominations, though not in all the categories they deserved: Pushing Daisies, Flight of the Conchords, Weeds, Dexter, Damages (a surprising number, all earned). Also James Spader yet again for Boston Legal. Currently my favorite drama is Dexter, favorite comedy is either Weeds or Pushing Daisies. Not sure how Damages can top the first season, perhaps it should've been a mini-series with a conclusion. I'm not sure what Boston Legal is... it's such a self-parody, I'd guess comedy. I was also very excited that Kristen Chenoweth got a supporting actress comedy nod for Pushing Daisies (she plays the dimunitive Olive Snook, former jockey, now in love with lead actor nominee Lee Pace). She's terrific and also a great musical actress, performing a song at the Oscars last year - truly a star in the making! Flight of the Conchords is a brilliant parody of the music video business, and actually got TWO song nominations. I was also surprised by the total number of nominations for Tin Man on the SF Channel, a good miniseries, derived from Wizard of Oz, but not really so awesome as to get its 8-10 nominations. Damages deserved all of its acclaim, but Weeds and Pushing Daisies should have been in the Best Comedy category, also Flight of the Conchords (truly hilarious and original stuff). That's just my opinion, I could be wrong! Aren't our opinions all we really have? Watch and enjoy, but as always: No Wagering! -- the Jman

Saturday, August 2, 2008

World's Best Drama Films

Films in gold won Best Picture
  • 12 Angry Men (bw)
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (bw)
  • All About Eve (bw)
  • Amadeus
  • The Apartment
  • Broadcast News
  • Citizen Kane (bw)
  • Dominick and Eugene (drama)
  • Elmer Gantry (drama, bw)
  • Empire Falls (mini-series)
  • Fearless (Peter Weir's)
  • Good Will Hunting
  • Housekeeping
  • Hud (bw)
  • The Hustler (bw)
  • The Last Picture Show (bw)
  • Little Foxes (bw)
  • The Magnificent Ambersons (bw)
  • Midnight Cowboy
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (bw)
  • Munich
  • Network
  • Nicholas Nickleby (8 hr)
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  • On the Waterfront
  • Seven Days in May
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • Stars Fell on Henrietta
  • The Sweet Hereafter
  • The Sweet Smell of Success (bw)
  • Terms of Endearment
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (bw)
  • Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (bw)
Foreign Language Drama
  • Babel (Mexico)
  • The Conformist (Italy)
  • El Norte (Mexico)
  • The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Italy, bw)
  • The Grand Illusion (France, bw)
  • Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring (France)
  • Kolya (Czech)
  • L'America (Italy)
  • La Dolce Vita (Italy)
  • The Motorcycle Diaries (US, in Spanish)
  • The Return of Martin Guerre (France)
  • To Live (China)
Docu-dramas, based on true stories
  • A Beautiful Mind
  • Alexander Nevsky (Russia)
  • All the President's Men
  • Citizen X
  • Dead Man Walking
  • Downfall (Germany)
  • Drugstore Cowboy
  • Elizabeth
  • Finding Neverland
  • Gandhi
  • Hope and Glory
  • In Cold Blood
  • The Last Emperor
  • The Madness of King George
  • Mongol (Russia)
  • The Motorcycle Diaries
  • The Name of the Rose
  • Norma Rae
  • October Sky
  • Reds
  • Reilly, Ace of Spies (mini-series)
  • Searching for Bobby Fisher
  • Songcatcher
  • Sybil
  • Tucker: A Man and His Dream
  • The World's Fastest Indian
Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring are two halves of the same novel, released simultaneously; theater goers could see the movie back-to-back as a double feature, or come back another day for the second part. This is an all-time classic, not to be missed. Nicholas Nickleby (played by Roger Rees) was a film version of the 8-hr London play; it was performed four nights a week in 2-hr segments; on Saturday it was performed in 2-four hour segments with a one hour lunch break. This is easily the best Dickens novel on film. I believe it was only 60 actors who played 250 roles. Milos Foreman directed both Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Bernardo Bertolucci directed both The Conformist and The Last Emperor.