My Favorite Movies of the Year … Special “30 Years Ago” Edition!

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them, MOVIES TO REMEMBER: The ol' favorites that The Lunch Movie kids might have watched had the tradition continued... on December 31st, 2012 by Jim Delaney

Everywhere movie fans turn this week, they will find a Best of 2012 article. With several of the Oscar-contender crop yet to open in Boston, it feels premature for me to discuss my favorites; after all what if Zero Dark Thirty turns out to be my favorite movie of the year? I could go ahead and close the book 2012 regardless, or I could do nothing, but I’ve written too much nothing for the past few months. Or I could write about something unique and personal.

A debate has raged for years amongst cinephiles regarding whether 1939 or 1962 was the greatest year in cinema history. If you’re a nerd, there is only one answer to this question: 1982. This being the 30th Anniversary of the greatest year in movie-nerd history, it feels like a good time to review a portion of the films that made me glad to have lived through that era. When I say it was a great year for movie nerds, you may assume that I’m thinking solely of genre movies. 1982 offered great genre and non-genre movies, but it was in the area of genre movies that ’82 shaped the generation that would follow. Let’s consider not one or two but five essential sci-fi films: E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tron, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and Blade Runner.

If you grew up watching Steven Spielberg‘s E.T. on video, you may not recognize what a juggernaut it was for theatrical audiences. Not only did it usurp the #1 box office champ spot held for 5 years by Star Wars, it took 11 years before Spielberg himself knocked E.T. from his perch. No one was prepared for how popular a simple film about a boy helping a stranded alien find his way home could be. One might expect that after the runaway success of Kenner’s Star Wars toys that E.T. dolls would be in toy stores a month before the movie opened. This did not happen, and when the first doll finally arrived, it was proportionately all wrong. E.T.’s stubby legs were made as lanky as his elongated arms, and his face was more pudgy and cute. When my Mom and I saw that inaccurate doll at Macy’s in Manhattan, a sales lady told us they were flying off the shelves. Kids embraced a substandard toy because it was the only option available. 15 years before throngs of high school girls saw Titanic multiple times to cry together, kids from 8 to 80 cried together with E.T., keeping it in theaters for a year. That was not a typo. Once upon a time when a good movie could last 3 or 4 months in theaters, E.T. played on some screens for an entire year. There was even an ad campaign in spring 1983: “After one year, E.T. is going home!” How does a movie last that long? We needed it. The Gordon Gekko ’80’s were years away, we were still trapped in the Patrick Hale ’80’s. We needed something new and different. We want to believe in magic and care about someone pure and innocent. This “poor bastid who looks like he crawled outta the sea and forget to go back in,” as my Grandma Delaney described him, fit that bill perfectly. I saw E.T. several times with friends, but my strongest memory is seeing it on two consecutive nights with my dad, The Fats. We had taken a road trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. There wasn’t much to do after dinner, especially in a hotel where the only TV was in the lobby, so both nights we went to see E.T. in the one movie theater in town. The first night was like any other movie night. The second night, The Fats had a few extra drinks with dinner, and introduced this pastoral small town bijou to the Times Square tradition of audience participation. No one told him to shut up or complained to management. They were too busy laughing. A few other folks even joined in, with everyone falling silent during the finale. When it was over, a few dozen emotionally exhausted people stood under the marquee with tear-stained eyes and laughing smiles, taking in a magical summer night that would have made Ray Bradbury feel right at home. Show me another movie that folks could laugh with, and then laugh at, and bond with strangers after sharing.

If you’ve seen Nicholas Meyer‘s Star Trek II then you don’t need me to tell you that it is one of the most meticulously crafted genre movies ever made. This was an all too seldom case of the big studio development system doing its job properly, by finding the right people for the movie, and trusting them to do their jobs. Personally I was a fan of the first Star Trek movie in 1979, but many found it too cerebral, or just plain boring. Star Trek II was produced for less than one third of the first movie’s budget, and was a bigger hit, because the story appealed to both core and passive fans. Admiral Kirk and the Enterprise crew do battle with a villain from their past who hijacks a scientific experiment with the intention of using it as a weapon. There was a more compelling tie to the original series than the first film offered to the core fans, and there were themes of family and aging (and ol’ fashioned revenge) that proved more accessible for passive fans than the 2001-esque existential quandary of the first film. I saw it on a rainy opening weekend with my brother Ed and my Mom. The theater was so full that we had trouble finding three seats together. Ed and Mom sat toward the back and I joined some classmates way up front. This may be the hardest I ever heard Ed cheer for a movie, and I was on the opposite end of the theater from him! He wasn’t alone; a moment during the ship battle in the Mutara Nebula is to this day the loudest I’ve ever heard an audience erupt in applause. Was there anything groundbreaking here? Not so much. It was just a conspiracy of cool, the likeness of which no other sequel had ever aspired, let alone achieved. There is not one thing you can change that would make Star Trek II a better movie; for the film they were making, this was as good as it gets.

Steven Lisberger‘s Tron was only a modest success at the time, perhaps partly due to its being considerably ahead of its time. Science fiction films had given us tales of people shrunken to Gulliver proportions, and further, but Tron was a distinctly ’80’s vision of this story. Jeff Bridges plays a videogame designer whose crowning achievement is stolen from him. When he tries to recover his game, he becomes sucked inside the world of his own creation. A few years after the arcade game Space Invaders ignited the competitive spirit of legions of kids, in the summer that Pac Man and Donkey Kong battled for gamer supremacy, Tron took us more deeply into that world than we’d imagined. The impact of this film is felt more with each passing blockbuster videogame; we have not been able to journey inside a computer as Tron suggested, but we have figured out how to surround a gamer with the game. Comparing contemporary video games to watching Tron in the summer of ’82 is an experience similar to considering your smartphone while watching Mr. Spock use a tricorder on a classic Star Trek episode. In what was a first for me, I read the script for Tron (purchased for $10 at a Star Trek convention) before seeing the movie. When you read Steven Lisberger’s script, you realize the immense imagination that went into the production. As a kid familiar with Atari 2600 and arcade games, I drew from a narrow visual reference as I read the script. The story is all in the writing, but the film’s scope needed to be conjured by people truly capable of seeing the future. This was my first experience reading a script by a director, where you can see that they had the full film in their head, even if it is not all on the page. The perfect creative storm of the uniquely qualified production designer Syd Mead and electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos pulling out all stops on Lisberger’s story created a world without precedent, a world every kid wanted to visit. None of us actually thought we could be zapped inside a video game, but damn if we didn’t spend that entire summer in the local arcade, hoping that it could happen. OK, not the entire summer; we needed some time for the movies!

George Miller‘s The Road Warrior was originally released in Australia as Mad Max 2 in 1981. While Miller’s original Mad Max had been successful in Australia and elsewhere around the world, it was mostly relegated to drive-ins and grindhouse dives in the U.S. and Canada. The Road Warrior featured Mel Gibson as an ex-highway cop who becomes a guardian to an outpost of survivors of a nuclear war. The retitling distanced The Road Warrior enough from its source that it seemed especially refreshing to American critics, who embraced the action and gritty tone of this film above just about any other adventure that year. There was even a re-release in January ’83 to give it an extra push during awards season. That push resulted in The Road Warrior winning Best Foreign Film from the L.A. Film Critics Association. From the opening montage sequence, I realized I was in a different world with The Road Warrior. I had seen montage in other films, and recognized some of the images of war and socio-political unrest here, but I had never seen montage so precisely evocative. As my movie education progressed, I understood that this sequence could be traced back to Eisenstein, but at the time, this was all new to me. By juxtaposing those famous images with scenes from the first Mad Max film, we see both how the world at large and Max Rockatansky himself came to such a desolate existence. I like Mad Max, but I remain in awe of the opening sequence in The Road Warrior; it is some of the finest editing in a trilogy known for its kinetic editing style. Max helped me define my idea of heroism and bravery. I grew up with Batman and Superman, but Max was something different. Rocky Balboa was my closest comparison, refusing to stay down even as his coach Mickey implores him to let Apollo Creed win their exhibition bout. In later years I learned this was a staple of spaghetti westerns, but Max was one of my earliest experiences with an anti-hero. I had never seen a hero get his ass kicked like Max, and had never seen a hero keep coming back, more for the benefit of others than himself.

The science fiction film from 1982 that has had the most extensive path from obscurity to quintessence would have to be Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner. Harrison Ford plays a burned out detective tasked with hunting down 5 cyborgs in 2019 Los Angeles. It barely broke even at the box office, and was largely overlooked by all but the nerdiest of movie goers, but among those nerds it resonated deeply and quickly. Blade Runner is likely the film about which more has been written, studied, and derived from than any other, sci-fi or otherwise, from this year. The impact was seen most clearly in the production design of movies that followed, from Brazil and Batman to Dark City and The Matrix, plus a litany of anime films. Blade Runner‘s grungy and rain-slicked production design, by the way, was created by the same man who made Tron glow in the dark. There is more to this film though; artificial intelligence with this sort of character complexity existed in novels, but never on screen before Blade Runner. Before Bishop and Lt. Cmdr. Data, before Andrew Martin and David, Blade Runner introduced us to the full spectrum of the notion of a robot becoming sentient. The Replicants were fearsome and fearful, vengeful and noble, in short: they had soul. A few days after I first saw Blade Runner, I met up with the friends I saw it with at my school’s football field, waiting for or town’s 4th of July fireworks. I recall being stunned that I was alone in loving this movie. Everyone else liked it, but like most of the nation at the time, they were more focused on E.T. This was my first experience with being certain that I had witnessed something amazing and transformative, even if no one else around me recognized it. I had just seen the first movie that ever made me cry for a villain.

When you look back at what critics dismissed as Big Dumb Summer Fun, you might be surprised by how it stacks up to contemporary Big Dumb Summer Fun. We definitely had some crap, every generation gets their fair share, but most of ’82’s Big Dumb Summer Fun was comparatively impressive. Sequels were nowhere near as ubiquitous as they are now. Among that handful of sequels were the aforementioned Star Trek II and Road Warrior, and the aforementioned Rocky Balboa battling for his title against Mr. T in Rocky III. Mr. T’s electrifying debut made him an overnight star, and a hero to kids, which is all the more impressive given that he played the antagonist. Later in the fall, Sylvester Stallone would introduce us to the beginning of his other notorious franchise with the tight as a drum action thriller First Blood. We also had Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th 3-D, one of the most successful ventures of the brief 3-D revival of the early ’80’s, and William Shatner showing his comedic chops in Airplane II: The Sequel.

Aside from sequels, movies adapted from comicbooks have also become inevitable in recent years, but 1982 only gave us two … and a half: Wes Craven‘s Swamp Thing and John MiliusConan The Barbarian. George A. Romero and Stephen King also gave us their homage to Max & William Gaines’ EC Comics in Creepshow. If you’re only going to have three comicbook related films, this is a strong collection: all three were dismissed as lurid and violent goofiness, but all were deceptively well made. Roger Ebert not only fawned over Swamp Thing during is initial review with Gene Siskel on their PBS show Sneak Previews, he revisited it later that year during a special episode focused on hidden gems that audiences might have let slip by. Conan the Barbarian kept comicbook fans happy, though it was occasionally derided by devotees of the Robert E. Howard pulp novels that inspired both the comics and the movies. A film aficionado’s reaction might be that Conan’s Hyborian Age is also a perfect canvas for Milius to explore his warrior poet ethos. A movie nerd’s reaction is that Conan the Barbarian is a perfect movie to blaze up a joint and have a few laughs. The Fats took Ed & I to see Conan at the long gone Rivoli Theater on Broadway. Aside from loving the movie, this was also my first encounter with the grindhouse audience participation that made my dad so popular during E.T. in Cooperstown. Much as I loved Conan, it still cracks me up at inappropriate moments, anytime I recall the disciples of Cheech & Chong who sat behind us in the Rivoli. Creepshow, which Ed & I saw with The Fats rather than spending Thanksgiving at the kids’ table with my Mom’s family, is that rare movie that absolutely lives up to its tagline: The Most Fun You’ll Ever Have Being Scared!

Horror was as well represented in 1982 as comicbook films, though two of the finest were remakes. Paul Schrader remade Jacques Tourneur‘s 1942 Cat People with Nastassja Kinski and John Carpenter remade Howard Hawks‘ 1951 The Thing with Kurt Russell. Considering these films together could trigger an interesting debate about sexuality in horror films. Schrader’s Cat People does not amp up the sexiness of the earlier film simply by showing more skin, he blurs the line between human and animal sexuality when his characters encounter their transformations. Tawdry sexy marketing? Maybe, but this also helped this were-cat movie stand apart from a crop of pretty good werewolf movies in the preceding year. In his adaptation of The Thing, Carpenter chose to do away with the love interest of Hawks’ film, adhering more closely to the original John W. Campbell pulp story. To this day, Carpenter cites this as a mistake, which he feels hurt The Thing at the box office. Success is guaranteed neither by making a film chastened like Carpenter’s nor steamy like Schrader’s. Though I dig both immensely, both barely covered their production cost. The most successful horror film of 1982 is probably also the scariest PG-rated film ever made: Tobe Hooper‘s Poltergeist. Watch Poltergeist again, and you will find it like a book you can’t put down; its pace entices you with what could have been a standard family drama. By the time the supernatural element is introduced, you are already as engaged in the well being of this family as you would have been with the Jarretts or the Kramers.

A few films featuring military characters were amongst the year’s memorable dramas. The other surprising success story of the year besides E.T. was An Officer & A Gentleman. This love story between Navy aviator Richard Gere and smalltown girl Debra Winger took several weeks of word of mouth promotion before it hit #1 in its 6th week of release. Most movies are headed for second run theaters by then, but An Officer & A Gentleman spent most of Fall ’82 vying with E.T. for the #1 spot. I can’t speak for what drew everyone else to it, but I’ll tell you why it hit me like lightning: until then, every movie I’d seen that included nudity or sex made me eager to grow up so I could experience that for myself. This was the first movie I’d ever seen that showed me the responsibility that comes with, and the damage that can come from, relationships if they are not properly cared for.

Wolfgang Petersen‘s Das Boot was monumental to filmgoers in general and to me personally. This intense submarine drama achieved what would have previously seemed impossible: it made us despair for WW2 German sailors, and recognize their positions as pawns to a Fuehrer they come to reject. It also made me grow up and start giving subtitled movies a chance. Lastly Clint Eastwood took a rare turn away from westerns and cop movies to play an Air Force pilot in Firefox. This cold war espionage thriller was based on the first of four novels. Had it been more successful, it would have been cool to see Clint reprise this shell-shocked character, but Firefox got lost in the same flood that swept up Blade Runner and The Thing.

Aside from stories of men in uniform, 1982 was a helluva year for drama in general. The most game changing, generation defining performances in the acting profession since Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire came via Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice and Ben Kinglsey in Gandhi. Before these two performances an actor could get away with playing another nationality or ethnicity as long as they were charismatic. No longer; after Streep and Kingsley in ’82, an actor will be taken to task if they cannot pull off a convincing accent as well as an emotionally compelling performance. Traditionally outstanding performances in exceptional films, like Jessica Lange in Frances, Paul Newman in The Verdict, or Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek in Missing, or the ensemble from That Championship Season were not enough to be rewarded by Oscar voters that year. Not that this would make them any less compelling, and worthy of your attention, if you have not yet seen them.

A comedy-drama for which I have a soft spot, and which seems to have been utterly forgotten, was David S. Ward‘s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. It was not the most faithful adaptation; it is more an adaptation of Steinbeck’s sequel Sweet Thursday, using Cannery Row as backstory. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, just different from its source, and still more faithful than many novel adaptations. The perennially cool Nick Nolte plays an over the hill baseball pitcher who becomes smitten with Debra Winger, the new lady in town, who takes up living and working in a brothel in Depression era Monterey, CA.

1982 was also a strong year for comedy. Despite Jessica Lange losing her Oscar nomination for her dramatic leading role in Frances, her supporting role in Tootsie provided her first Oscar win, and made her the sixth (currently of thirteen) actors to be nominated twice in the same year. Tootsie was loved by most, but reviled by a few, who were upset by Dustin Hoffman‘s character cross-dressing. This was not the only comedy of the year to address gender identity issues, or as some in my homophobic adolescent circle called them, “movies that make you gay.” Deathtrap gave us Michael Caine wondering aloud if Christopher Reeve was gay, as well as a magnificently underplayed answer delivered later in the film. This answer came as no surprise; I had already seen the Ira Levin’s play of Deathtrap on Broadway with my family. Victor Victoria was a surprise. Blake Edwards‘ masterful farce featured Julie Andrews as a woman pretending to be a man who pretends to be a woman, and James Garner as her suitor, who can’t tell if his affection for her means he is gay. Everything about this movie was so rambunctiously playful and positive that it made me begin to question whether I should be taking my queues about gay people from family and friends who don’t actually know any gay people.

John Lithgow’s former football player going through a sex change in The World According To Garp was another well drawn character and fully realized performance that introduced me a larger world than I’d see in standard drama. One of the most successful comedies of ’82 was The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, featuring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds in an adaptation of the Broadway musical. If I had any doubt that the information I was receiving about gay people, cross-dressers, prostitutes or anyone else not on the straight-n-narrow, I need look no further than Porky’s. My male peers were as ignorant about women as the chumps in this guilty pleasure skin-fest, which put their advice in proper perspective, and made me begin reading between the lines on movies a lot more closely.

One of my favorite comedic actors, Richard Pryor, had a great year in ’82. He released best performance film, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, which also remains the best stand-up comedy film I’ve ever seen. He also delivered one of his finest performances hitting both comedic and tragic notes, as a Vietnam veteran trying to rejoin society after being held for 5 years as a prisoner of war, in the underrated Some Kind of Hero. Anyone who thinks of Lois Lane when they think of Margot Kidder will be impressed by the understated range she shows opposite Pryor as well. Personally I’m not a fan of The Toy, but I’m in the minority; this was one of the most successful films in Pryor’s career.

This was also a year for breakout comedic performances. Eddie Murphy single-handedly turned 48 Hrs from a violent crime drama to an action comedy. Ron Howard shed his apple pie image by directing the year’s third bordello-set comedy Night Shift, featuring his Happy Days partner Henry Winkler and an energetic new lad named Michael Keaton. Though he’d already delivered dramatically the year before with Taps, Sean Penn proved that he was equally adept at comedy with one of the iconic performances of the decade in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. A cast of actors with supporting credits in TV movies-of-the-week (raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember M.O.W.’s!) was turned by Barry Levinson into the most memorable ensemble of the year in the prototype for his Baltimore films, Diner. Making her feature debut in John Huston‘s extravagantly budgeted Annie, Aileen Quinn was hyped as a rising star in celeb magazines, but she chose a different path with her education.

In anything but a breakout performance, Peter O’Toole earned his 7th Oscar nomination for My Favorite Year. In my favorite performance of his career, and my favorite comedy of 1982, Steve Martin cracked wise with Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney and romanced Barbara Stanwyck and Better Davis in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. This deliciously conceived story, and impeccably edited and designed production, is the ultimate valentine to anyone who loves film noir mysteries and gangster movies.

As I mentioned earlier, 1982 was not without its fair share of crap, like the blight on the resume of the underrated Charles Bronson that was Death Wish 2. Somehow, even the crap then was more fun than the crap now. We had vulgar medieval fun like the blades-n-boobs fest The Sword & The Sorcerer and Don Coscarelli’s blatant rip-off of Excalibur, Conan, and the Dungeons & Dragons Handbook The Beastmaster. There was also Larry Cohen‘s Q: The Winged Serpent, which is memorable if for no other reason than that they fired live rounds from an automatic rifle on top of New York’s Chrysler Building. I guess they were counting on the bullets landing safely in the East River. The wacky part is they were firing at nothing; the monster was stop-motion animated in during post-production. Q took the term “guerilla filmmaking” to an absurd extreme. Garry Marshall‘s parody of daytime TV soaps Young Doctors In Love was an even guiltier pleasure comedy than Porky’s,i.e. it is just as vulgar, and even more dumb, but I still dig it. Hands down the biggest pile of crap in ’82 has to be MegaForce. If you ever want to see how little you can buy for $20M, or what a movie about elite commandos by way of discoland would resemble, check out MegaForce.

High art, low art, and no art aside, 1982 also gave us two of the most genre defying oddities ever produced by a major studio: Pink Floyd: The Wall and The Dark Crystal. If you can figure out which paragraph above either of these films would have belonged in, you’re a more decisive fan than I am. In a year full of surprises, a year full of movies that have inspired a myriad of imitators, Pink Floyd’s descent into paranoia and Jim Henson‘s philosophical adventure were such singular experiences that no one has attempted to copy them. There were also movies that I was too young to see at the time, but came to appreciate later: István Szabó‘s Faust-themed Nazi drama Mephisto and Jean-Jacques Beineix‘s wonderfully unpredictable thriller Diva opened in 1981, in Germany and France respectively, but opened in the U.S. in 1982. It take until just a few months ago before I finally saw Jack Nicholson in one of his lesser known performances in Tony Richardson‘s initially X-rated police thriller The Border. Jack plays a Texas border officer surrounded by corruption and racism, and conflicted by gnawing compassion for those he arrests. Two things immediately struck me about The Border. First if it were released today, times and tastes have changed enough that it would be rated R, and second that it would probably be even more controversial. It didn’t cause much of a stir when it was released, because the X-rating limited the theaters that would show it, and thus greatly limited its audience. With illegal immigration no less a hot-button issue today than it was thirty years ago, this film reaching a wider R-rated audience would elicit some entertaining and frustrating polarized debate. Three decades later, I am still engaged by and learning from the films of 1982.

I used to think that if I ever wrote an autobiography, it would be titled Godzilla Eats Junior Mints, following a gullible moment when The Fats took Ed & I to see Midway when I was 6. After taking a glance at these films, I think an equally viable title might be All I Really Need To Know I Learned In The Movies When I Was Twelve.

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The Perfect Moment: CASABLANCA at The Brattle Theater

Posted in MOVIES TO REMEMBER: The ol' favorites that The Lunch Movie kids might have watched had the tradition continued..., PALACES, ONE AND ALL: A Valentine to screens in small towns, big cities and odd corners of the country where I have received salvation at 24 frames per second. on February 14th, 2011 by Jim Delaney

CASABLANCA (1942) Directed by Michael Curtiz, written by Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, starring my personal favorite ensemble cast ever, anywhere, of all time, bar none.

My New England hero Spalding Gray spent his monologue SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA searching the world for “a perfect moment” of peace and happiness and insight. Long before I was aware of Spalding’s quest, CASABLANCA had been one of my favorite films. Not a perfect moment, or even a perfect movie (if there is such a thing?) but something that made me very happy. My earliest visits to The Brattle Theater in Cambridge, MA were a similar source of happiness. Back in those days the ceiling would sometimes leak during rain, and in winter it was almost as cold inside as outside, but they showed double features of classic movies almost every night. I don’t recall what film first brought me to The Brattle, but I’m sure that from pretty early on, I figured it would be a damn cool place to see CASABLANCA. I had no idea, in what was early in my relationship to both the film and the theater, that a confluence of the two predated my affection for either.

My awareness of CASABLANCA predates my awareness of The Brattle by about ten years. While my Mom was the warden of my bedtime when I was younger, my Dad became the governor, granting me a stay if I watched old movies with him. I learned my first hints of a World War 2 political structure more complex than Us versus Them from watching CASABLANCA past midnight on a school night. My junior high history class covered the Nazi occupation of France, reminding me of Rick Blaine’s question to Capt. Renault, “Louie, are you pro-Vichy or free French?” Renault dodges the question initially, but answers it later with a water bottle and a garbage can; the characters of CASABLANCA personalized for me many of the dates and map positions that most of my classmates memorized only briefly in case they were on the test.

I moved to the Boston area in the summer of 1988. My first friend at Emerson College, my encouraging teacher Al Girelli, hipped me to The Brattle Theater during summer Freshman Composition 1 class. Later in that school year, I made my fated attempt at a perfect moment with CASABLANCA at The Brattle, a moment that almost did not happen. I lived with my family outside of Boston in Acton, driving each day to Alewife Station, and riding the Red Line to class. A blizzard was expected the night of the show prompting my folks to ask me to weigh driving conditions versus staying out to see a movie I’d already seen. Walking from my last class to the Charles St. train station, large wet snowflakes fell, turning to slush when they hit the street. I got to the platform in Charles St. and could barely see Cambridge across the bridge through the falling snow. Damn, I really wanted to see CASABLANCA on a movie screen for my first time! An announcement came over the P.A. system: “This next train is an express to Harvard Square.” That’s where fate kicked in. That was the Boston MBTA telling me “Go ahead kid, go to the movies, this snow will pass.” So I went. And it was beautiful; I had real butter on my popcorn, an audience who appreciated the movie as much as I did, and a seat in the front row of the stage-left balcony where I still prefer to sit today.

There are elements that you miss on a 27″ TV that become more apparent on a theater screen. We have a good idea of when the movie takes place from Rick drunkenly asking Sam “If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?” What I had never seen until The Brattle show was an insert in the scene that introduces Rick. We see him signing a casino check. A close-up of the check reveals a detail, lost on TV, that the movie begins on December 2, 1941. The entire story takes place over three days; knowing that those three days conclude within moments of the U.S. officially entering World War 2 adds an extra resonance to Rick’s transformation from bitterness to nobility. When the show was over, the snow had turned to rain and the streets were wet but clear, and I got home more safely than I probably would have if I’d driven earlier. Hell, for all I know, The Brattle saved me from being in one of the car accidents I passed on Route 2 that night!

The Brattle doesn’t show quite as many double features now that they are a non-profit as they did 20 years ago, but if at all possible, these days they show an even more diverse schedule of classic and recent and foreign and independent films. Happily, they uphold a longstanding tradition of showing CASABLANCA, which began mere months after Humphrey Bogart died. The initial response from The Brattle’s neighbors in Harvard University could be described as little more than pleasant. Before too long though, legends of Harvard students rising to sing La Marseillaise with Paul Henreid cemented The Brattle’s relationship with CASABLANCA, and helped secure the film a position of honor on the schedules of revival houses across the country. Today, Wikipedia tells us that CASABLANCA’s “lasting impact” traces first and foremost to The Brattle. So strong is their bond that a restaurant called Casablanca, complete with wall murals inspired by the film, draws a good crowd directly beneath the theater.

I have since taken nearly every opportunity to see CASABLANCA in a movie theater. For the 50th Anniversary of its release in 1992, The Brattle showed it for an entire week, unusual for repertory cinemas where a standard run is one or two days. I saw it four times that week, once each with Ed and Maria, and twice on my own. While I lived in Los Angeles I saw it a handful of times in The New Beverly Cinema and American Cinematheque‘s Aero and Egyptian Theaters. Though I was very happy to see one of my favorite movies in these great theaters there is a chemistry between The Brattle and CASABLANCA that I have yet to see duplicated anywhere else. From L.A. I once plotted to extend a return visit to Maria’s family back east by another day because The Brattle was showing CASABLANCA on the night we planned to leave. That plan failed, so I did the next best thing: I ran it for the first of many times in the agency conference room where we used to screen The Lunch Movie.

I moved back to the Boston area shortly before the August 2009 show featured in the poster above. As if CASABLANCA at The Brattle wasn’t enough of a treat, the theater had begun serving wine and beer! They even used an image from the La Belle Aurore flashback in the slide promos between shows to alert the audience to the presence of adult beverages. Drinking in this film is something I have spent considerably too much time pondering; Rick and his cohort Signor Ferrari are never far from a bourbon bottle, but it is Victor Laszlo’s drink choices that I’ve become fixated upon. A Czechoslovakian fighting Nazi expansion across Europe, Laszlo orders two Cointreaus, a champagne cocktail and two cognacs at different points in the movie. I love the defiance of a man fighting to reclaim France from the Nazis specifically choosing drinks made within the Nazi occupied regions of France. Maybe that was not intentional, and I doubt it was, but it’s one of the innumerable facets that make this story sparkle like no other.

This weekend I saw CASABLANCA in what has become another Brattle tradition: the Valentine’s Day show. Novelist and Boston University professor Leslie Epstein, the son and nephew of the film’s Oscar winning writers Julius & Philip Epstein, spoke before the show. Mr. Epstein joked about his father and uncle’s writing process as starting to work at 1p.m. each day until stopping to play tennis around 3. He explained the hiring of third writer Howard Koch as being necessitated by The Epstein Boys’ period helping Frank Capra and the War Department prepare their WHY WE FIGHT series of films. He also addressed the rumor that CASABLANCA began filming without a firm ending. He told a story of his father and uncle driving east on Sunset Blvd, when at a red light at Doheny Blvd, the line “Round up the usual suspects” struck them both. As they continued east, by the time they’d reached Fairfax Ave, they had planned the entire ending. He even brought the Oscar with him that his father and uncle won, which you may be able to see in his left hand in this photo.

Perhaps this most recent viewing illustrates why seeing CASABLANCA at The Brattle is my perfect moment. It is comfortably familiar but never the same experience twice. If I’m not noticing a detail that I was unable to see on television, or spotting a character nuance that speaks to my life as much as the film itself, then I’m learning how the convergence of this film in this theater came to be. These two are so permanently linked that they become something I can carry with me, reflect upon, and return to like a hometown. I know very well the stretch of Sunset that Leslie Epstein spoke of; I’ve even seen period photos of what it would have looked like during his father and uncle’s epiphany. The next time I drive those two miles, regardless of what else is happening that day, I will have a flash of this perfect moment that never fails to transform and delight and intrigue me.

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10 or so FAVORITES OF 2010

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them, MOVIES TO REMEMBER: The ol' favorites that The Lunch Movie kids might have watched had the tradition continued... on December 31st, 2010 by Jim Delaney

As with my 2009 list, I will not call this a Best Of 2010 list, since there are still plenty of movies that I have not yet seen. CASINO JACK, BLUE VALENTINE and ANOTHER YEAR have yet to open in my neighborhood. I missed others that I had high hopes for including HOWL, LAST TRAIN HOME and CATFISH.

10. LET ME IN, written & directed by Matt Reeves. It is sacrilege in nerd circles to praise a remake, but in adapting the 2008 Swedish chiller LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, Reeves creates that rare remake that is as good as its source. The American version hones the story to the core, simplifying some supporting roles, but deepening the longing and isolation of the two leads — a bullied young boy and the new girl in town who is so much more than she seems. One aspect of the original that is happily left intact is the period, the early 1980’s, allowing for a Ronald Reagan cameo that resonates heavily with the overall theme.


9. INSIDE JOB, directed by Charles Ferguson, and CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER, written & directed by Alex Gibney.
Hollywood crime movies and 007 villains will have big shoes to fill following the portrayal of the players in the 2008 global financial crisis depicted in these two documentaries. Ferguson’s JOB casts an impressively wide net within its restrained running time, bringing us face to face not only with how far reaching the damage was, but how deep the well of corruption remains. Gibney’s CLIENT 9 narrows its focus to one of the few people who tried to police the network that created this event. As an economic or political story, Gibney’s film is made more interesting if you have already seen Ferguson’s. As a story of the price of hubris, Gibney’s film speaks to the ages as a classic cautionary tale.

8. CELL 211, directed and co-written by Daniel Monzon.
This Spanish thriller makes the absolute most of an intense premise: a young prison guard on his first day of work becomes trapped inside during a riot and pretends to be an inmate to survive. It touches on multiple arguments in the question of prison reform without ever become preachy. If nothing else, see it for Luis Tosar as king of the block Malamadre, in one of those performances that raises the bar for anyone else who tries to play bad@$$ from here on out. Hopefully Tosar is at least being considered for the planned 2013 American remake.

7. TOY STORY 3, directed and co-written by Lee Unkrich.
I may be such a sucker for Pixar that I should start titling my list “9 Favorites + Pixar’s annual offering.” Time and again these folks come up with characters and stories that resonate with the changes and challenges life throws at people of all ages. The story at its most basic follows the adventures of Andy’s toys after he has outgrown them. It succeeds to a greater degree by banishing Woody, Buzz and company to a day care center reminiscent of a retirement home, an asylum or a penitentiary. In a series that has always featured outcasts of one type or another, our heroes become the outcasts, making the noble toys’ strength and love resonate more deeply than ever before.

6. SOUL KITCHEN, directed and co-written by Fatih Akin.
The downside of this German comedy is that I will never again be able to forgive a subtitled comedy with the excuse that a joke had been lost in the translation. This is a charming and rambunctious ode to the joy of food and rock-n-roll that made me laugh more than any film in any language this year. In framing criticism of social issues, including immigration and economic disparity, with the simple story of a down and out restauranteur who hires a volatile chef, SOUL KITCHEN jokes and jabs on an international scale.


5. RESTREPO, directed by Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger, and THE TILLMAN STORY, directed by Amir Bar-Lev.
The Wars on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan have already spawned several outstanding documentaries. These two films are both titled for Army soldiers who gave their lives in Afghanistan, but the films themselves are stylistically very different. RESTREPO follows a platoon from the 173rd Airborn as they fight to acquire and hold a hilltop outpost in the Korangal Valley. The 173rd name the post after their medic Juan Restrepo, who was among the first to fall in this campaign. This film was produced by National Geographic; like many of their nature documentaries, the emphasis is on showing rather than telling. The camera is often right beside soldiers, the definition of embedded, whether in firefights or performing their daily grind of building and maintaining the base. THE TILLMAN STORY includes some combat footage, but the bulk of the story is told through interviews and news footage. This film divides its time between two Tillman stories: first, Arizona Cardinals linebacker Pat Tillman, who walked away from the NFL to enlist in the Army in 2002; and second, the story of his family in their search for the truth of how their son died during a 2004 ambush in Afghanistan. We meet Pat Tillman through NFL and college football interviews and family films, and his family through C-SPAN coverage of Congressional hearings to determine whether his death was manipulated for propaganda purposes. Both films will leave you with a profound sense of the ripple effect caused by the loss of each and every soldier.

4. WINTER’S BONE, directed & co-written by Debra Granik.
On many levels this is probably the most unexpected drama of the year. A teenage girl in rural Missouri attempt to track down her meth-dealing father after he uses the deed to his family’s house to post bail and then vanishes. This is one of those rare stories that can be compared to so few films before it that you find yourself settling in for wherever the ride takes you. The cast may be the finest ensemble you’ll find anywhere this year. This is especially impressive considering that, aside from Jennifer Lawrence in the lead and John Hawkes as her uncle, most of the cast have short resumes in film or TV. The backwoods location, used as vividly as any film noir has ever used darkened city streets, is the kind of remote that would create real challenges to shooting a film. This cast and crew turned each of these challenges into opportunities to create an unusual and haunting mystery.

3. THE GHOST WRITER, directed & co-written by Roman Polanski.
Polanski is part of a vanishing breed of filmmakers who show up every so often to remind us how it’s done. The story concerns a writer who is hired by his publisher to help a former British Prime Minister to write his memoirs. Putting aside that the PM is inspired by Tony Blair, this film could have been made and taken place any time in the last fifty years. It has the urgency and nuanced perspective of some of the best Cold War era spy films. Going against the recent grain of rapid fire editing and shaky camera movement, Polanski prefers to set a mood with each scene, and again within each shot, and allow you to study it until it chills you to the bone. A conversation on a fog shrouded country road between Ewan McGregor and Eli Wallach is probably the most perfectly composed scene in any movie I’ve seen this year.

2. MARWENCOL, directed by Jeff Malmberg.
No doubt about it; on every level, this is the most unexpected documentary of the year. It follows a young man named Mark Hogancamp who had been beaten into a coma outside of a bar in his hometown of Kingston, NY. When he awakens with little memory of who he is, he is left trying to figure out who he had been and who he wants to be. He begins a regiment of accidental art therapy by building a fictitious town called Marwencol in his front yard and populating it with G.I. Joes, Barbies and other dolls and action figures. Hogancamp uses photographs of his town to create allegorical stories, taking place during World War 2, but in essence helping him reconstruct his current life. Malmberg offers us a fly on the wall perspective into Hogancamp’s life and art, rolling out revelations as Hogancamp himself makes each discovery, resulting in 2010’s hands down winner for the “life is more amazing than fiction” award.

1. TRUE GRIT, written & directed by Joel & Ethan Coen.
Yes, it stays closer to the Charles Portis novel than Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version, but that’s irrelevant. Slavish adherence to source material has created plenty of mediocre films, while some adaptations like L.A. CONFIDENTIAL can stray quite a distance while remaining consistent with the spirit of their source. In the end what is most important for a film is how well it engages its audience. The Coen’s TRUE GRIT is the kind of film that makes me love movies. The novel challenged western cliches of its day, focusing on a young girl who hires a U.S. Marshall to avenge her father’s death, rather than on the hired gun himself. The Coens continue to upset tradition; in their hands moments that might have been filmed as gallant rescues become fearsome confrontations. One particular moment of violence against an animal is so masterfully handled that it not only convinces us that we just saw more than we actually did, it also grabs us and shakes us and reminds us that for all the nobility portrayed in frontier sagas, a certain amount of ugliness was also required to cut the path.

A FEW OTHER FAVORITES:
127 Hours
Animal Kingdom
Best Worst Movie
The Crazies
Exit Through The Gift Shop
The Fighter
Four Lions
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
The Girl Who Played With Fire
Inception
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
The King’s Speech
Machete (go ahead and scoff, Machete kicks @$$!)
Never Let Me Go
Rabbit Hole
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
The Social Network
You Don’t Know Jack (HBO)

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THE HARDER THEY COME (1972) and NO PLACE LIKE HOME (2006)

Posted in MOVIES TO REMEMBER: The ol' favorites that The Lunch Movie kids might have watched had the tradition continued... on August 31st, 2010 by Jim Delaney

Saturday August 21, 2010 at The Brattle Theater, Cambridge, MA.

THE HARDER THEY COME, written & directed by Perry Henzel, starring Jimmy Cliff, Janet Barley, Carl Bradshaw and Basil Keane.

The Boston area has a long history with Perry Henzel’s first film. THE HARDER THEY COME was a midnight classic showing every Saturday for ten years at The Orson Welles Cinema until that theater was lost to an electrical fire in 1986. I became aware of the movie via Jimmy Cliff’s music video when I was in high school, back when MTV played songs. After numerous missed opportunities to see THE HARDER THEY COME in revival houses, the Brattle Theater offered the irresistible proposition of pairing it with Henzel’s second and final film, NO PLACE LIKE HOME.

It was worth the wait. Jimmy Cliff plays Ivanhoe Martin, a young man who leaves his deceased grandmother’s home in the Jamaican countryside, traveling to the city to bring his mother the remaining pocketful of cash from his grandmother’s savings. From there, Ivan’s path follows two cliched story lines — a) naive lad with a song in his heart trying to break into the music scene and b) decent but desperate unemployed guy descending into a life of crime. After a few false starts, Ivan succeeds both in recording his song, and establishing a foothold has a soldier in the ganja trade. The waters begin to muddy when corrupt local police team with flame-thrower bearing American soldiers, ostensibly to restrict international smuggling, while also potentially seizing distribution of a sacrament within Jamaica’s Rastafari movement.

As murky as the socio-political landscape becomes, so too does Ivan’s destiny. Within this story it appears Jamaica’s penal system has a problem similar to America’s: negative or violent behavior is not reformed but reenforced and enhanced. Early in the film, Ivan spends a brief period in jail, where he is humiliatingly beaten for a relatively minor crime. After being released from prison, Ivan gets in a fight with another man over a bicycle and brutally slashes his opponent’s face. If any confusion remains about Ivan’s path to becoming a bad@$$ anti-hero rather than a noble hero, compare his ambivalence during a church sermon to his exaltation while watching a spaghetti western. The latter sequence is hauntingly echoed as Ivan revels in his outlaw notoriety and imagines the eyes of the nation on he and his blazing guns.

THE HARDER THEY COME has been dismissed by some as being poorly made. I adamantly disagree. Cheaply made? Yes. It was shot in an impoverished nation on Super16mm, which in the ’70’s was a notch above your Uncle Larry’s home movie camera. It is unrealistic to fault a film made under these circumstances for not looking as crystal clear as the crane shots from THE CONSTANT GARDNER. This is no reason to ignore what has been captured here: the cracked and worn city across the tracks from the idyllic-fishing-village Jamaica most of the world had previously glimpsed in DR. NO. Henzel not only shows us a Caribbean nation as no feature film had done before, he shows what few have managed to do since. DePalma’s SCARFACE rushed to bask in the glamorous life, glossing over an opportunity both in Cuba and Miami to explore how Tony Montana’s street-level crime fed a much larger empire. THE HARDER THEY COME remains firmly rooted in that daily struggle that deludes thugs into thinking they can gain control simply by killing their immediate competitors, while unseen men grow rich on the blood of both factions.


NO PLACE LIKE HOME, written & directed by Perry Henzel, starring Carl Bradshaw, Susan O’Meara, P.J. Soles and Countryman.

NO PLACE LIKE HOME had as unusual a journey to the screen as could be imagined. Perry Henzel shot this quasi-metafiction story, in which actors and non-actors play versions of themselves, as an imperialism themed follow-up to the corruption themes of THE HARDER THEY FALL. What exists in the way of a linear story concerns an American camera crew attempting to shoot a shampoo commercial in Jamaica. The star of the commercial, P.J. Soles, disappears without a trace. Producer Susan O’Meara recruits driver-gofer-guy-in-the-know Carl Bradshaw to help her search the countryside for their star as the clock ticks on Madison Ave.

…And then … Henzel’s footage vanished. No friends, this is not a CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST or BLAIR WITCH trick, Henzel’s film actually vanished before he was able to edit it together! In a twist that would be considered incredible if one tried to pass it off as fiction, Henzel’s footage was recovered in a New York film lab nearly 30 years later. Henzel completed NO PLACE LIKE HOME, which premiered to a sold-out crowd at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, but he succumbed to cancer days before it was to premiere in Jamaica.

The resulting film is, on the surface, sexier and more playful that THE HARDER THEY COME. Carl Bradshaw finds time for afternoon delight (with Grace Jones!) in the middle of a workday, P.J. Soles lounges topless under a waterfall waiting for the camera crew to stop arguing, and Susan O’Meara notices that Carl is a pretty interesting fella while both of them are supposed to be searching for missing P.J. This is all surface, mind you. The point that Henzel drives home is that while these luxurious distractions occur, high-rise hotels are springing up and commercials are being shot, but little of the money being generated reaches the local economy. In 1972, Ivanhoe Martin risked the “If you can’t beat ’em” option, as the aforementioned unseen criminal empire benefited from the blood on Jamaican streets. By 1976 the unseen benefactors of Jamaica’s sweat and tears had become more legitimate businesses, forcing Carl Bradshaw to face the “Join ’em?” end of the equation.

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RED CLIFF (2008 & 2009)

Posted in MOVIES TO REMEMBER: The ol' favorites that The Lunch Movie kids might have watched had the tradition continued... on March 23rd, 2010 by Jim Delaney


Thursday, March 11, 2010 at The Brattle Theater.

Written & Directed by John Woo, starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chiling Lin and Fengyi Zhang, and featuring an opulent score by Taro Iwashiro.

America is now able to see two versions of John Woo’s RED CLIFF, a truly epic story of warring Chinese factions in 208 A.D. toward the end of the Han Dynasty. The 148 minute cut released theatrically last fall, which was among my Favorites of 2009, is out today on DVD and BluRay. For a few dollars more, you can buy RED CLIFF Parts 1 & 2 (146 and 142 minutes respectively), and see the version that played across Asia and in a few European countries. In mainland China, RED CLIFF Part 1 broke the box office record set by TITANIC in 1998.

Comparing these two versions is not like comparing the shorter and longer versions of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, where one is clearly superior to most movies ever made, and the other is average at best. RED CLIFF is more akin to DAS BOOT, which was originally released in the U.S. at 149 minutes, but is now available in a 293 minute version that aired as a mini-series on German television. The shorter versions of RED CLIFF and DAS BOOT are very strong, and worth your time, with the longer cuts being quite simply the same immense quality in increased quantities.

Both versions of RED CLIFF contain some of the most intense and vivid battle sequences since the advent of CGI armies. It is endearing that Woo uses those grand CGI shots only long enough to establish the scope of his battles, before diving in close to focus on his strong cast doing impressive stunt work, including less wire-work and more horsemanship than I expected. The vanishing art of dramatizing military strategy debates (check out PATTON and A BRIDGE TOO FAR if you’ve never seen this done well) is in full force in either version of RED CLIFF. We not only learn about these characters through heroic speeches to their armies, or death-defying feats against their enemy, but also through their thoughtful planning with their brothers in arms.

RED CLIFF Parts 1 & 2 offers more than just longer action sequences by comparison to its abridged version. In both cuts, Princess Sun Shangxiang (played by Wei Zhao) defies her royal family’s “girls can’t fight” attitude, both by joining in battle and by sneaking behind enemy lines to send out intelligence via carrier pigeon. In PART 2 she accidentally befriends a reluctant officer in the enemy camp, a relationship nowhere in the shorter cut, granting her character a far more satisfying journey from start to finish.

The clear villain of the shorter film is General Cao Cao, seen above played by Fengyi Zhang, opposite Xiao Qiao played by Chiling Lin. General Cao Cao is a power-hungry military aggressor in the single film, though he is given a slight secondary motivation of lusting after Xiao Qiao, the wife of his opponent Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). The combined films expand Cao Cao’s passing lust into a consuming obsession. We see Cao Cao being unnervingly creepy when he forces a courtesan to answer by Xiao Qiao’s name, and tragically vulnerable when he finally meets the object of his affection. But wait, there’s more Cao Cao: try to name another war movie where the big rally-the-troops speech is delivered by the villain?! Yeah, I can’t either!! With a potential mutiny growing among Cao Cao’s army after a series of command errors, he unites his troops in a manner usually reserved for heroes. John Woo is not saying “poor Cao Cao’s just a misunderstood teddy bear,” but he makes a fascinating point of showing why this general’s army would follow him so loyally.

These are just two cases of how the expanded running time allows for much more intriguing characterizations. Rest assured that either version will show you the most sumptuously photographed show-stopping musical performance ever used in place of diplomatic negotiations, with Zhou Yu facing off against Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Please pardon the lack of subtitles in the clip and focus instead on the music and how Woo’s camera covers it.

As a final thought, I need to make the observation that the lines of resolution in digital video still cannot touch a single image on film, at least insofar as each technology stands today. When The Brattle Theater in Cambridge, MA screened RED CLIFF Parts 1 & 2 a few weeks ago, a mix-up with their distributor forced them to show Part 1 on film and Part 2 on BluRay. I will say this much for Blu Ray: the subtitles were considerably easier to read. Nonetheless lighter colors, like heavily clouded skies that appeared richly detailed Part 1, became white-washed in Part 2 even during the opening summary of scenes from Part 1. Night sequences often looked muddy. This has less to do with RED CLIFF than my confirmed preference for seeing movies in theaters that use film versus digital projection. Just a thought 😉 Now go rent RED CLIFF Parts 1 & 2!!

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Favorites of the iDecade, or the Ought Decade, or whatever the hell we’re gonna call this! (2000-2009)

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them, MOVIES TO REMEMBER: The ol' favorites that The Lunch Movie kids might have watched had the tradition continued... on January 28th, 2010 by Jim Delaney

10. WONDER BOYS (2000) Directed by Curtis Hanson

Try as they might, Paramount just could not make a success of this film. Upon release in February 2000 with an ad campaign featuring a disheveled Michael Douglas in a pink bathrobe; critics raved, but audiences ignored. WONDER BOYS was rereleased in the fall with the poster above, touting quotes from well-respected critics aimed squarely at receiving award nominations. Despite a handful of nominations, only Bob Dylan’s song “Things Have Changed” won a Golden Globe and an Oscar.

WONDER BOYS is simply too random in its humor, subtle in its soul, and illuminating without being condemning or condescending in its observations of human nature in general and academia specifically, for it to be sold in a 30 second TV commercial. It is one of those treats where you forget you are watching actors, and feel like you are watching real life happen to people who handle their slings and arrows with so much more wit than most of us could muster. If all that is not enough, it is also my favorite movie about the writers, a profession that has given us no end of tedious and pretentious films.

9. SPIRITED AWAY (2001) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

SPIRITED AWAY showed up in a moment where computer animated films were becoming more common than traditional animation. A decade later, with 3D computer animation surpassing the range of color and detail of 2D hand-painted, Miyazaki continues to remind us why film did not spell the end of live theater, nor recorded music the end of performance bands and orchestras. In traditional animation this laboriously realized, humanity emerges from the chaotic palette that a program would never allow. As live actors on a stage and music played by real musicians have survived, so will animation drawn and painted by patient masters who love this form.

Many films tell the story of children entering a fantastical world to which their parents are not privy. Few make the obliviousness of parents as potent a force as the wonder at the other end of the child’s experience. The elevation of these opposites to equal strength creates a desperation on the part of our young heroine that most children’s films or animation would shy away from. A protagonist can only be as interesting as the situation they are trying to conquer. SPIRITED AWAY trusts a child to a journey of such emotional, psychological and spiritual enormity that her courage and ingenuity dwarfs entire legions of X-Men mutants.

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10 FAVORITES of 2009

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them, MOVIES TO REMEMBER: The ol' favorites that The Lunch Movie kids might have watched had the tradition continued... on December 31st, 2009 by Jim Delaney

I won’t presume to insist that this list is The Best of 2009, if for no other reason that there was so much that I missed in 2009. I really wanted to see big Hollywood movies like TERMINATOR: SALVATION, quieter indy movies like ADVENTURELAND, and foreign fun like O’HORTEN, but sometimes they fall through the cracks. Here are the ones that grabbed me:

10. HARRY POTTER & THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, directed by David Yates. The HARRY’s had me wondering after the ho-hum GOBLET OF FIRE in 2005, but ORDER OF THE PHOENIX in 2007 gave me hope that they were back on track. They definitely were — HALF BLOOD PRINCE is so solidly conceived that I’d say you could enjoy it even if you’d never seen a HARRY movie. I can’t think of another film series where characters actually evolve to this degree from one installment to the next. This feeling of watching these kids grow up grounds the fantasy elements in something more real and poignant than most straight dramas can hope for.

9. PIG HUNT, directed by James Isaac. What’s the point of making one of these lists if you can’t include one guilty pleasure? A 3,000 lb giant monster wild pig isn’t enough to get you in the theater? How ’bout a cult of mostly nekkid completely stoned hippy chicks, and we’ll throw in Les Claypool as the leader of a chopper-ridin’ Bible quotin’ inbred family of hellions?! If GRINDHOUSE had been a triple-feature…

8. WHIP IT, directed by Drew Barrymore. I expected this movie to be fun and Ellen Page to be great, but I was not prepared for how well written it was, nor for how seamlessly Drew can toggle between family drama, teen hilarity and roller-rink mayhem. Page and the entire cast were committed to every funny, sad and angry note. John Hughes must be smiling from heaven.

7. INVICTUS, directed by Clint Eastwood. For all who say “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” I’d answer “Find someone who’s been makin’ ’em since they made ’em like they used to!” One of Clint’s great strengths as a director is that he trusts and encourages his cast, his crew, his composers, everyone to do their absolute best. Then he films it when they think they are still rehearsing. There is nothing sappy about making a movie with a message that “Yes we can all get along” when your story is about the intelligence and courage it takes to make the first steps toward the goal. …No pun intended. Seriously.

6. UP, Directed by Pete Docter & Bob Peterson. The opening ten minutes of UP contain some of the most luxuriously nuanced animation, in terms of character and location and tone, that Pixar has ever offered. And then they keep doing it! Coming to terms with Loss and Death have been staple themes of films aimed at children and families since OLD YELLER, but it is rare that they get it so right and still leave you smiling.

5. FOOD INC., directed by Robert Kenner. One might argue that this is more a piece of journalism than film-making. Maybe so. Kenner gets plenty of people on record discussing the pros and cons of many facets of a divisive issue. That is what a good journalist does; that is what FOOD, INC. interviewee Eric Schlosser did with his book FAST FOOD NATION. Kenner chose film as his medium, and the medium and the message are better for it.

4. FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. A fire-breathing story of rage and redemption, with James Nesbitt and Liam Neeson at the top of their game. There is an intimacy so urgent that at times you swear you’re watching it on stage. As much as I dig it when a film meets and exceeds my expectations, I dig it even more when it doesn’t waste time showing off afterward, but rather keeps its pace and drives toward one unpredictable destination after another.

3. THE ROAD, directed by John Hillcoat. Just because THE ROAD takes place in the near future does not make it science fiction, anymore than the lack of robots or rayguns make it not science fiction. It is not only the most thought provoking and soul stirring “What If?” in years, it is with all due respect to the Coens, the most spot-on photographic rendering of Cormac McCarthy’s prose as we’ve yet seen.

2. THE HURT LOCKER, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. When my dad and I saw PLATOON, he said that every 20th century war gets one film that sums up the experiences that made that war unique from all others. Pondering this, we came up with ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT for WW1, BATTLEGROUND for WW2, THE STEEL HELMET for The Korean War, and PLATOON for Vietnam. I’m not going too far out on a limb to guess that THE HURT LOCKER will be that film for Iraq or The War On Terror. It casts aside politics and focuses sharply on men doing a job. Many films offer a single image that becomes a powerful anti-war statement. Few offer anything as crushing as Jeremy Renner standing alone in a grocery store aisle to remind us how little we are doing while these brave and crazy volunteers risk their lives on the other side of the world.

1. THE COVE, directed by Louie Psihoyos. In following former “Flipper” dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry on a quest to Taiji, Japan to expose the illegal slaughter of dolphins, THE COVE inadvertently ends up being the most intense social/political thriller of the year. It would be interesting to sit O’Barry in front of the camera and listen to him say “They wouldn’t let me inside to see how dolphins and other animals and fish are being treated,” but an element of doubt would remain. To answer that doubt, Psihoyos employs a battery of camera technology that would make the Myth Busters envious as he and Barry adapt to each challenge they encounter. What results is an impassioned story of redemption, and some of the most imaginative camera work of the year, all topped off by an ending that I will only describe as “unforgettable,” lest I say more and deprive you of the impact.

…and, ’cause what’s a Lunch Movie post without at AFTER THOUGHT, here’s something that I remembered in the wee hours of 1.1.10 and was embarrassed that I’d forgotten to include:

RED CLIFF, directed by John Woo. I dunno how closely they follow the 208 A.D. battle that RED CLIFF is based on, but it’s still a ride worth taking. I can’t recall a war movie in years where tactics were so vividly planned and discussed. Most movies these days throw a bunch of fighters together and give you 5 minutes of sloppy-edited gunfire. RED CLIFF’s naval battle finale goes on for 15+ minutes, but even before that you get to see the planning, and later what some characters do to improvise when parts of the battle plan fall apart. Witnessing the rationale behind tactical decisions may not appeal to the “action crowd,” but to anyone who takes the cost of war seriously, it’s pretty damn intense. Fear not, action crowd: a hand-to-hand battle about an hour in, you’ll recognize it by the Turtle Formation strategy, is one of the most jaw-dropping action sequences I’ve ever seen — and the movie isn’t even 1/2 done yet!

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IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1947)

Posted in MOVIES TO REMEMBER: The ol' favorites that The Lunch Movie kids might have watched had the tradition continued... on December 20th, 2009 by Jim Delaney


Friday, December 9, 2009 at The Brattle Theater, Cambridge MA

Directed and co-written by Frank Capra, starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers and Gloria Graham.

It is convenient that The Brattle Theater offered IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE in the weekend right after I had seen Herzog’s THE BAD LIEUTENANT. This sequence enables me to stay on the topic of “movies I had strong hesitations about seeing.” For years I was way too impressed with my deep dark self to ever watch a movie with such a sappy title, never minding that I’d loved MIRACLE ON 34th STREET since I was old enough to barely begin wondering if Santa was real or not.

Wonderful Life, who are you kidding?! It did not matter if Mom or Dad loved it; it would take much more than that for me sit through a trip to Bedford Falls. When the challenge came in 1990, I was 20 years old in my senior year at Emerson College, so the deep dark (and pretentious) self was in overdrive. I was working at a Loews Theater in Copley Square, which is now sadly a Barney’s New York. We had three projectionists, all of whom taught film at local colleges and had made their own films. There was one fella named Phil who looked like Rasputin in Levis and an oil-stained t-shirt. Phil had earned the right to be as deep-n-dark as the rest of us students-by-day/ushers-by-night thought we were. If we mentioned Lucas, Phil would ask what we knew about Kurosawa; if we mentioned 2001 or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, he would ask if we’d seen SOLARIS. It was this man who, when I mocked IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE simply for it’s title, informed me that he felt it was “one of the most important and purely American works of art in any medium that any artist has ever made.”

So I watched it. And I cried like a sap. Way before the end, and again at the end. And I have watched it at least once per year since then. In all those viewings, I have come to the conclusion that IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is not amazing for the tears and joy that it makes us all look forward to. Its greatness lies in the levels of hell that it puts poor ol’ George Bailey through before he earns that tearful ending. This is a man who just cannot catch a break. Every time things are going right, something will come along to ruin it. Hey George, you have Mary in a very interesting situation and needing her robe? Guess what, your father has fallen ill. Hey George, your brother Harry has returned from college to take over your job? His new wife and her father have other plans. You’re finally escaping Bedford Falls to see the world, and on your honeymoon no less? Not on October 29, 1928!

The story is brilliant in its precision, ratcheting up George’s hope in equal measure with his dashed expectations. The winning decision that Frank Capra makes as a director is that he stands back and lets Jimmy Stewart become George Bailey. Camera movement and editing are, for the most part, spare. When George learns that Harry will not be taking over his job as planned, we follow George for a searching moment as he approaches Harry’s new wife. There is a similar pause when George and Mary are about to leave for their honeymoon, when they witness a mob gathering outside the Bailey Building & Loan. Yet another comes after Clarence has granted George his wish, where Capra closes in tight on Stewart’s face as George surveys what his become of Bedford Falls in his absence. Stewart’s eyes deliver soliloquies of greater despair than anything that could have been written for him to say.

Capra also loads the film with other little gems like the shot above: rather than belaboring George’s skepticism about Clarence with excessive dialogue, Capra simply inserts a physical barrier into the shot. We had already seen the clothes line earlier to know that George and Clarence’s clothes were drying from their fall into the river. We do not need to see it in this shot, except that it works to sever a lost man from his own salvation.

When I was younger and uninformed, I had expected IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE to be a blissfully ignorant denial of the very same hardships I had yet to experience. It is in the film’s embracing and transcending life’s slings and arrows that it finds its power and glory. Even for those of us who can only aspire to the destination George reaches, we can all relate to the road he travels. Capra is on record as saying he got more mail regarding the fate of old man Potter than he did any other topic in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. What those letter writers missed was that Potter’s punishment is that he has to be Mr. Potter for the rest of his miserable life. George Bailey reminds us that those hallmarks of America’s Greatest Generation — tenacity, ingenuity and generosity — can be their own rewards. Thanks for the push, Phil.

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