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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An OBITUARY for the HARVARD SQ. THEATER, Cambridge, MA (1926 – 2012)

Posted in 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 September 19th, 2012 by Jim Delaney

Freshman students moving into Harvard and other Boston area schools this fall, and wandering through Harvard Square, witnessed something no freshman student has seen in this neighborhood for over 80 years: a blank marquee on the Harvard Sq. Theater. In 1925, construction began on the 1,800 seat palace, with doors opening in 1926 on Massachusetts Avenue as The University Theater. In the 1960’s it was stripped down, modernized and rechristened the Harvard Sq. Theatre. The entrance moved around the corner onto Church Street in 1982, a change that heralded a succession of theater chain ownerships. When I first visited it had become part of the USA Cinemas chain. In the summer of 1992, when I worked here as an assistant manager, it was The Loews Harvard Square Theater. The final incarnation since 2006 is the AMC Loews Theater in Harvard Square.

Its programming has been as varied as the theater’s name, from major Hollywood studio productions to European films to independent groundbreakers, plus an impressive slate of milestone concerts. Photographs featuring the marquee in Mo Lotman’s fascinating and fun book “Harvard Square: An Illustrated History Since 1950″ will remind anyone of the classic movies of their youth: the 1950’s featured Halls of Montezuma screening with a March of Time documentary short, and later the odd pairing of the medieval The Black Knight with the noirish potboiler Turn The Key Softly. The 1960’s saw David Lean’s epic Doctor Zhivago, as well as another odd pairing: Shenandoah with Bedtime Story. One shot of the multiplex in 1987 offers Raising Arizona, Swimming To Cambodia, Platoon, Tin Men and a Ken Russell retrospective.

In the 1970’s, films continued to show here, but so did some significant live events. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, David Bowie and Bonnie Raitt have each performed on this stage. Bonnie Raitt’s opening act was christened “the future of rock & roll” following his performance that night. On January 15, 1974, when the Harvard Lampoon awarded John Wayne their first Brass Balls Award, Wayne entered Harvard Square on a tank riding up Mass Ave, arriving at the Harvard Square Theater to receive the award. From 1984 thru the theater’s final night this summer, the ’70’s continued to reign every Saturday with midnight screenings of the iconic musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

When I moved to Boston in 1988, the first theater I went to was the USA’s Harvard Sq. Cinema. Mom & I saw Robert Redford’s The Milagro Beanfield War. The building was a pastiche of different eras of movie theater architecture. The single-screen palace had been divided into 3 screens in the early 80’s, and subdivided into 5 by my first visit. The round concession stand in the middle of the lobby seemed like a holdover from the ’60’s refit. Where there had been a balcony, two smaller cinemas with seats at an awkward angle to the screen had been created. Two more small rooms were added where the backstage area stood from back when the theater could support live shows. Despite these modern updates, remnants of the gilded origins remained in the main theater, most notably in the ornamental moldings on either side of the screen.

My brother Ed was honorably discharged for the Army the week before Batman opened in 1989. To Ed, there could be no better homecoming than seeing one of the most anticipated films of the decade on this large screen. We waited in line for 3 hours with 500 other nerds to see the opening Thursday midnight show. Ed still laughs when he recalls the usher who corralled the line, yelling “I don’t care who you are, I don’t care who your friends are, if your ass ain’t in line, you’re not seeing Batman tonight!” I fell in fleeting lust the night I saw Tequila Sunrise in one of those awkwardly angled balcony theaters. I fell in lasting love the night I saw, believe it or not, Total Recall on my first date with Maria. And I was here on the final night for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Between 1990 and 1994 I worked for 5 different movie theaters in Boston, St. Louis and Los Angeles. I had been promoted to assistant manager in the Loews Copley Theater before being transferred to Harvard Square in ’92. Copley was Loews’ flashship in New England; it had was a very corporate vibe, due mostly to our District Manager’s office being right across the hall from the Manager’s Office. Harvard Square by contrast felt like a small town theater that coexisted with its neighborhood. One of the other assistant managers was instrumental in finding work for a few people who the more corporate types might hesitate to hire in their theaters, including an autistic usher and an elderly doorman who was very friendly as long as he took his meds. I think I liked that manager a little more than she liked me; I suspect she saw me as one more suit from Copley. I thought her shaved head, tattoos, multiple piercings and punk jacket with flowing hippy skirts were emblematic of what made this theater like no other in the Loews chain.

I didn’t need to work in the Harvard Sq. Theatre very long before I found my own connection to the neighborhood. There was a middle aged couple who would come by once or twice a month who we would let in for free. I’m not certain of how down on their luck they were, whether they were homeless and living in shelters, or just damn close to it. They were sweet and friendly, had shared their first date in this theater in the late ’60’s, and all these years later still had the genuine affection of a couple you knew could survive anything as long as they were together. They made a point of coming earlier in the week when they knew we wouldn’t be sold out; they didn’t want us to give away weekend seats that others might buy, they just hoped we could spare seats that would otherwise go empty. Movies made them happy and gave them a few hours a month to not have to worry about what tomorrow might hold. Sappy as that may sound, make no mistake, these two were the kind of movie nerds who delivered my nerd education at a very impressionable age. Among the movies I let them into were Howards End and The Player; they engaged the ushers and I in an enlightening debate on Merchant / Ivory and period English films following the former, and Altman films and movies about movie-making following the latter. In short, we benefited as much from their company as they did from ours.

On the most memorable of those quiet summer days early in the week, one of the ushers and I shared an adventure that made us feel like The Goonies. Our projectionist had warned us that he suspected one of the projector bulbs would burn out very soon. Replacements had been ordered, but they were delayed in shipping. The projectionist thought there was a stash of spare bulbs, but couldn’t remember for the life of him where he’d seen them. So this usher and I went hunting, and before we knew it, we’d wandered into corners of the theater that neither of us ever would have imagined still existed. We went under the stage, where former dressing rooms were covered with a layer of dust that would choke a vacuum cleaner. The only other sensation I can compare to the decayed look, the moldy smell, and the ambient dull echo under the stage are the cells in the solitary wing of Alcatraz. As deep as we wandered, so high we climbed. We wandered up into what we suspected was the stage rigging; it was so broiling in the dry summer heat that it felt like the area could burst into flames. And we found our way to the roof. From up there I realized my ultimate Boston dream would be to own this theater and live on the roof. To show the movies I want to show all day, and retire each night to a perch with a nearly 360 degree view of Cambridge, Boston and Somerville, hell I couldn’t think of a better way to blow a winning lottery ticket. We even managed to find one spare projector bulb.

I hate to admit it, but since returning to Boston in 2009, I (and other fairweather fans) may have been part of the problem that resulted in AMC Theaters’ decision to shutter Harvard Square. AMC had not committed any noticeable resources to this theater since taking it over. When 3D projection was added, it was not put in the biggest theater, it was cautiously rolled out first in one of the upstairs balcony theaters. I saw Avatar on opening weekend in the theater where they would normally open movies not befitting any spectacle. Sure, 3D eventually worked its way downstairs, but by then I had already embraced other options. I saw most of my big Hollywood films in AMC’s sparkly new theater on Boston Common. I went to Coolidge Corner or Landmark’s Kendall Square theater for independent films. If I wanted a dose of the Harvard Square that I missed, I went to The Brattle.

I may have not have shown my old workplace the proper affection these last few years, though I did make it here for Where The Wild Things Are, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Public Enemies, and two of the precious few movies Maria has joined me for since our return to the area, Julie & Julia and Captain America. I also made it a point to be here for its final night. Earlier in the week had been the July 4th fireworks, which if you’ve never seen in Boston, are a big friggin’ deal. Sometimes Neil Diamond even shows up — that’s how big a deal! But that didn’t resonate with me as heavily as the hourly countdown to the Harvard Sq. Theatre going dark. It had been 10 years since I’d seen “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and 17 years since I’d seen it here. This evening’s performance was like a jazz funeral. This cast and crew had performed dozens of times, possibly hundreds of times in this theater. There were no tears; there were laughs and hugs and the most go for broke, balls to the wall, rambunctiously deviant and meticulously staged Rocky performance I’ve ever seen. With so many cast members all wanting to share in the final curtain, the principle characters were all played by multiple performers, making for an electrifying mash-up of the skills that each performer brought to each scene. I never dared hope I’d witness the seduction of Rocky & Janet played by two women, and yet there they were. Sorry, I don’t have any photos of that; everyone else was too busy digging the scene to take pictures, and I didn’t want to be the one guy ejected for that transgression. Suffice it to say: woman as Janet + woman in gold lame’ swimsuit as Rocky = a bargain for the price of admission! Another fun and impossible to ignore facet of this evening’s performance was the evidence via the jokes of just how long I’d been away! Between the audience at large, and once very animated gent right behind me, I heard jokes about Osama bin Laden, Donald Rumsfeld, Mormons, Scientologists, Mel Gibson, Bank of America and who can count how many other subjects that were not cultural sticking points during my last visit to Dr. Frank’s lab & slab. I thought I would take so many more photos, and maybe even video, bu I confess I was quickly overtaken by the spirit of the room, in a way that I have never been at any other Rocky screening in this theater or anywhere else. I made a conscious decision not to document the performance in photos, to only say that I wish you had been there with me to celebrate the defiling of the virgins.

The morning after: I’m hearing that the investment group who bought this theater from AMC did so within 4 days of the closing, for a sum in the neighborhood of $6.5 million. Please allow me to publicly state here that if I win my aforementioned rooftop perch lottery, I will offer these folks an immediate 20% return on their investment to walk away. I have no idea what they intend for this space, but I’ll tell you what should go here: an East Coast version of the Alamo Draft House. In my Hollywood ending dreams, the Harvard Square Theater would have 2 dozen beers on tap, wine shipped in from my small market compadres in Santa Barbara County, and the best L.A. street vendor style bacon wrapped sausage sandwiches with caramelized onions and peppers, beef and black bean chili, eggplant lasagna and thick bacon-gasmic clam chowder in town. I’d lose a significant amount of seating in order to allow patrons maximum foot room and comfort; a little trick that makes The Vista Theater on Sunset Blvd one of movie-nerd-nation’s premiere destinations. And while I would never presume to compete with my beloved Brattle, I would go out of my way to keep the Lunch Movie ethos that defined my old agency conference room screenings alive for the next generation of movie nerds. I’d dig out the old and seek out the new with a diversity of titles such as we’ve already discussed, plus others I saw here, like Stormy Monday, Aria, Indiana Jones, Zentropa, and Wonder Boys. Until that day comes, I’ll happily remember the Harvard Square Theater this way, with hundreds lined up and eager to visit:

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BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on September 3rd, 2012 by Jim Delaney


Directed by Benh Zeitlin, adapted by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin from Alibar’s 1-act play JUICY & DELICIOUS, starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Gina Montana and Levy Easterly.

It’s always both a thrilling and disappointing experience when you see a nearly perfect movie in the first half of the year. Thrilling because you’ve experienced something transformative, but disappointing because you expect nothing else that year will measure up. I have seen BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD twice in screenings sponsored by the Independent Film Festival of Boston, first at The Brattle Theater in Cambridge, and next at The Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline. I saw it a third time a month into its general release. I can’t tell you the last time I saw a movie three times in a theater; it was probably over a decade ago. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have composed my thoughts and posted this article last month, or earlier. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is, however, anything but ordinary circumstances. As I walked home from the Brattle after that first viewing, my mother called. I could barely tell her the title without my voice cracking. When was the last time you saw a grown man walking down the street blithering with a quivering lip and a lump in his throat to his mother? That is what this movie can do to you.

Without getting overtly social or political about it, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD tells the story of those who will be America’s frontline casualties in the escalation of climate change. Quvenzhané Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry), in a collection of bayou islands south of New Orleans, herein known as The Bathtub. Hushpuppy and Wink live in a neighborhood where folks are born, live, and die mostly off the grid. They cook by outdoor grill, there isn’t a TV in site; the only traces of electricity are the refrigerators that keep the beer cold.

If there is a social message at play, it is obscured by the sort of layers of subtext and metaphor found in some of your better science fiction films. Hushpuppy learns in school about ancient cave paintings depicting humans hunting aurochs bulls, a lesson creatively delivered via a tattoo. She doesn’t need school to teach her about global climate change; she sees it in the water level rising against the levy that protects New Orleans, the levy that leaves the Bathtub to sink. In Hushpuppy’s imagination she sees a family of aurochs frozen in the arctic ice. She also sees the aurochs released when their berg cracks free, floats south, and melts. The Q&A sessions in the screenings I attended drew multiple interpretations of what the aurochs stood for. Far be it from me, or the film, to make the meaning of these giant beasts abundantly clear for you. Part of what makes this story so compelling is its ability to incite viewers to insert their own ideology, however accurately, into the lives of these characters.

The Bathtub’s folks are both the original 99%, and the original Tea Party. You won’t have to look too far on the IMDB message boards to find kneejerk reactions of one political extreme or another. There are liberals who feel that the Bathtub’s population needs to be rescued and given access to the suburban dream of Target and Starbucks. There are conservatives who see them as abusers of the welfare system. Both are mistaken: the Bathtub doesn’t want to be rescued, it wants to be left the hell alone, as we see the day FEMA comes knocking on their doors. This is a group that fends for itself; we never see them cashing a welfare check, we see them raising their own produce and livestock. We also see them pouring out large enough nets of seafood that it is more reasonable to assume that they make their living on a boat rather than off the dole.

Some see this is a film about African Americans, but this ignores other facets. Hushpuppy & Wink are African American, as are several supporting characters, but there are a roughly equal number of white characters living in The Bathtub. This place reminds me of stories my dad, The Fats, told me of growing up in Passaic, NJ during the Depression. He lived within the same neighborhood as Italian Catholics, Irish Protestants, African Americans, Jews, Cubans, Asians, Central Americans, and a family who ran a Halal meat market. Passaic in the 1930’s and the Bathtub now, and this film, transcend race or gender or generation. These characters and this story are sewn together by the same thread that tied my dad’s neighborhood. In the best of times and the worst of times, this is one city.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is more akin to the character driven films of 1970’s American cinema, and the sensual location experiences of the past few decades of European films, than a contemporary boardroom generated studio product. There is a story here, but it is so thoroughly seen through Hushpuppy’s eyes that the audience needs to give it the same latitude we would give any child attempting to tell a complex story. The reward for your patience is the poetry of Huspuppy’s perception, and Quvenzhané Wallis’ relentless ability to convince us that this is simply the way she sees the world. That innocent and enlightened perception is never more evident than in a flashback sequence whereHushpuppy tells us about her missing mother. The entire journey of this film is Hushpuppy confronting mortality: her mother’s, her father’s, the planet’s, and her place in all three.

Benh Zeitlin avoids most of the saccharine pitfalls that a coming of age story could have fallen into. He often shoots from Hushpuppy’s eye level, making Dwight Henry’s Wink as imposing as the imaginary aurochs. This film is also a feat of low budget sound design like we haven’t heard since THE HURT LOCKER. Movies with one hundred times Zeitlin’s budget are too often tales full of sound and fury signifying nothing. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD features a hurricane sequence as violent as any of the weather sequences in TWISTER, but here the intensity is achieved almost entirely through sound. Hushpuppy’s metaphysical quest in search of her mother is a stirring use of silence and Felliniesque exaggeration of sound and music.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD takes you to a corner of the United States that few have ever seen, and explores what is strongest in our national character, to expose our shared humanity. That is mighty ambitious for any film crew, but especially so for a cast and crew of which many were making their first feature length film. I don’t know yet if this is my favorite movie of the year, but it is the most emotionally exhausting and hauntingly expressive movie I’ve seen in a long long time.

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OUTLAND (1981)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on March 26th, 2012 by Jim Delaney


From Tuesday, January 8, 2008.

Written & Directed by Peter Hyams, starring Sean Connery, Frances Sternhagen, Peter Boyle and James B. Sikking, and featuring a score by Jerry Goldsmith.

Connery is Marshal William T. O’Niel, the “one good space-cop” protecting a mining colony on a moon orbiting Jupiter. Previous marshals had accepted bribes to ignore crime and corruption (and a nasty drug ring), but we wouldn’t have much of a story if O’Niel continued the status quo. It’s essentially HIGH NOON in space, but if yer gonna steal, steal from the good stuff!

It’ll finish Thursday,
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 3.26.2012

OUTLAND is, in short, one of those movies that makes me an old fashioned nerd. It is flawed, and dated, and yet I have great affection for it. If you want to focus more on the science part than the fiction in “science fiction” you could fault OUTLAND for inaccuracies of physics, like the depressurization conditions required for a human body to explode inside a space suit, or what direction blood would flow in zero gravity. If you are one of those ironic hipster nerds who think Ray Harryhausen’s work looks cheap, and the CGI Yoda trumps Frank Oz’s muppet Yoda, you might fault OUTLAND for its model and matte work. If however you’re an old fashioned nerd, a nerd who values precedent as well as innovation, you can see this movie for its unique and exciting strengths.

I suspect the same poindexters who have a problem with the liberties OUTLAND takes with gravity would also take issue with Buster Crabbe’s flame-sparking, chainsaw-sounding rocket in the 1930’s FLASH GORDON serials. “Bursts of flame could not occur in space where there is no oxygen for the fire to consume,” the disciples of THE SIMPSONS’ Comic Book Guy would declare, “nor would we hear that buzzing exhaust in a vacuum.” This is where I need to break with some of my nerd counterparts; if it makes for a more exciting story then I don’t care about that other stuff. Flash Gordon’s rocket looks and sounds cool, and when I was in 6th grade, blood floating upwards from OUTLAND’s dead body in a zero-gravity prison cell was one of the most disturbing murders I had ever seen in a movie. OUTLAND opened two years after ALIEN defined what grunt labor in space would look like, and a mere six weeks after the first mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia reignited a generation’s collective interest in space exploration. This movie may have not nailed every technical aspect, but it should be credited with imagining functions of working in space that few movies had done before, and even fewer as vividly.

#IDontHaveFactsToBackThisUp, but I suspect that no genre in film is subject to as precise scrutiny as science fiction. In romances we accept the rarity of mutual orgasm in love scenes because hell, who doesn’t aspire to that, even if it’s about as likely as the pressure conditions required to crush a body in a space suit. Cop movies and legal thrillers rarely get called out for authentic police or courtroom procedures. Word to the wise: if you’ve ever cheered for the “surprise witness” in a court movie, then you need to relinquish your credentials to criticize an imaginative movie like OUTLAND over a few technical indiscretions.

As long as I’m showing my age stripes, I need to go on record about something more expansive than model and matte work. I like any art that shows evidence of human contact: little flaws that bespeak individual experience. Some folks like seeing crystal clear digital projection of CGI generated images. Me, I just saw a print of Bela Tarr’s DAMNATION at the Harvard Film Archive. It was loaded with the kind of smudges, sound pops and platter scratches that Tarantino and Rodriguez faked to lend authenticity to GRINDHOUSE. I love that stuff, just as I love being able to spot finger imprints in the fur of Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion model for the 1933 KING KONG. I love OUTLAND’s opening sequence where we first learn about the mining operation on Io. Of course that model work will never fool anyone into thinking that Hyams & Co. actually went on location in space, but that model perfectly orients the audience for the finale.

Oops, I’ve mentioned the finale, and without making a ***Spolier Alert***! Well nevermind finale spoilers; I’m not going to tell you what happens, I’m more focused on how it happens. There is an amazing chase sequence that occurs midway through OUTLAND. Marshal O’Niel runs down one of his suspects through a multi-leveled industrial labyrinth. The editing in this chase is so intense, and the set is such a feat of production design, that some have said it undercuts the finale. I can see that point of view, but I think the finale takes a bold reversal of expectation by going in a thoroughly different direction than that chase in the middle. Rather than going bigger and bolder, they went eerier and quieter, and yes they even adhered to a few laws of gravity.

So there you have it: OUTLAND — cool cop story, thrillingly imaginative space opera, state of the art film experience of a bygone era. If you’re the moviegoer who does not fault PLANET OF THE APES for dated make-up (which was itself state of the art, once upon a time) or METROPOLIS for damn near literally wearing its heart on its sleeve (what with all that chest-clutching) then you might also be the fan who can recognize OUTLAND for its place in the nerd canon.

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How To Use TRIVIA To Handicap Your OSCAR BETS: 2012 Edition REDUX, with Answers to Last Week’s 25 Trivia Questions…

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them on February 26th, 2012 by Jim Delaney

The 2012 Oscars will begin in a few hours. Lets pause for a moment to consider the Kodak Theater. This will likely be the last time we will see The Oscars presented in a theater named for one of the core elements of filmmaking. Kodak’s current bankruptcy woes are expected to force them to end their lease with this beautiful theater. The doors only opened in 2001, but despite it being such a damn cool theater, it struggled against other venues to find its footing. The Pantages and Ahmanson theaters were the choice venues for big musicals and plays. The Chandler Pavillion and Disney Hall were the venues for opera, classical music and ballet. Concerts tours had multiple options all over town. In 2003 I saw Prince play a phenomenal 3 hour show in the Kodak, and then go upstairs to The Highlands to play a 2 hour after party. Legendary nights like that were too few and far between though; very often this outstanding theater with great acoustics and sight lines sat dark. In the past year, The Kodak has been given a new lease on life. I urge you to check it out if you ever have the opportunity.

One week ago I placed my bets, made my personal picks, and issued a trivia challenge. Below are the answers to the 25 trivia questions.

1. Which Best Picture winner had the shortest running time?
“Marty” (1955) 91mins
2. What was the first color film to win Best Picture?
“Gone With The Wind” (1939)
3. What was the only animated feature nominated for Best Picture before the inclusion of a separate category for Best Animated Feature?
“Beauty & The Beast” (1991)
4. On 3 occasions The Oscars have been postponed by at least 1 day. In which years did this occur?
1938, 1 week for flooding in L.A.; 1968, 2 days for the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr.; 1981, 1 day for attempted assassination of President Reagan.
5. In which year were the awards first televised?
The 25th Awards in 1952 on NBC.
6. Name the youngest nominee for Best Director.
John Singleton, “Boyz N The Hood” (1991)
7. For which film did Alfred Hitchcock win Best Director?
Trick question, he didn’t. He won the honorary Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1968.
8. Name the only Oscar winner who also held a Nobel Prize.
George Bernard Shaw, Best Screenplay “Pygmalion” (1938), won Nobel Prize for literature in 1925.
9. Who went off-script while presenting an award in 1990 to decry the lack of a Best Picture nomination for “Do The Right Thing?”
Kim Basinger
10. “Churchill’s Island” (1941) has the distinction of winning the first award in which category?
Best Documentary
11. Who has hosted the most Academy Awards ceremonies?
Bob Hope, 19 times.
12. How long are winners currently given for their acceptance speeches?
45 seconds.
13. Who sang the show-stopping comical duet “It’s Great Not To Be Nominated” in 1958?
Burt Lancaster & Kirk Douglas
14. How tall is Oscar?
13.5 inches, and weighs 8.5lbs
15. Who was at the podium when the awards were notoriously “streaked” by a naked man running across the stage?
David Niven (1974)
16. Who is the only person to ever refuse an Oscar?
George C. Scott, Best Actor “Patton” (1970). Marlon Brando boycotted attending the ceremony when he won Best Actor for “The Godfather,”(1972) but he still sent Sacheen Littlefeather to receive the award and make a prepared statement.
17. Name the two actors who won Best Director and Best Picture for their directorial debuts.
Robert Redford, “Ordinary People” (1980); Kevin Costner, “Dances With Wolves” (1990), beating out Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas” respectively.
18. Which two families have three generations of Oscar winners?
First, the Huston’s: Walter, Best Supporting Actor “Treasure of Sierra Madre” (1948) and John, Best Director, same; Angelica, Best Supporting Actress “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985). Second, the Coppola’s: Frances Ford Coppola and his father Carmine won Best Director and Composer for “The Godfather: Part 2” (1974) and Francis’ daughter Sofia won Best Original Screenplay for “Lost In Translation” (2004).
19. Who has received the most nominations for Best Actress?
Meryl Streep, 16.
20. To whom did Marlon Brando lose his first nomination for Best Actor for his performance in “A Streetcar Named Desire?”
Humphrey Bogart, “The African Queen” (1951)
21. Name the only character that two different performers in different films have won acting awards for playing.
Don Vito Corleone. Marlon Brando, Best Actor “The Godfather” (1972). Robert DeNiro, Best Supporting Actor “The Godfather Part 2” (1974)
22. What was the most recent film to win every award for which it was nominated?
“Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King” (2003) 11 noms/11wins
23. What was the first non-English language film nominated for Best Picture?
“Grand Illusion,” France (1938)
24. Which composer has won the most Oscars for Best Original Score?
Alfred Newman, 9 wins.
25. What was the first animated film to win the Oscar for Best Original Song?
“Pinocchio” (1940) “When You Wish Upon A Star”

If you want to read more fun trivia, check out the American Movie Classics site. What follows is my earlier post from February 19, 2012…

One week from tonight, the 84th Academy Awards will be handed out at the Kodak Theater. As with 2011, I have not made any bets on this year’s ceremony.We have a pretty interesting field this year, and by interesting I mean I still don’t know what to make of it, a dilemma for anyone looking for a safe office pool bet. Though THE ARTIST has shown some steam recently with the BAFTAs, the critics’ awards in previous weeks were anybody’s game. Critical awards in some cities heavily favored THE ARTIST or HUGO or THE DESCENDANTS, while others spread the love more evenly. It is also notable that many of those critics observed in their top 10 lists that 2011 was a particularly weak year for movies. I’m not certain I agree with that. I think every year is a great year for movies; the problem is that so many strong movies never find an audience. I don’t love this years list of Oscar nominees.

Hell, even if I cobbled together a personal list from the 2012 nominees for Oscars, BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Independent Spirit Awards, I would still have a few favorite films that were snubbed across the board. Among those, the best movie I saw last year was China’s CITY OF LIFE & DEATH. The only appreciation from an American body it received was last year from the L.A. Film Critics Association. CITY OF LIFE & DEATH premiered in China in 2009, played the American festical circuit in 2010, and received limited general release in 2011. Who’s to say what year it even belongs in for American awards?! Similarly, Ralph Fiennes’ outstanding directorial debut CORIOLANUS was made in 2010, is listed on IMDb as 2011, and is only being released outside of New York and Los Angeles this month! I understand that Academy rules focus on the NY and LA releases, which would put it in the running for the 84th Oscars, but among U.S. awards it went roundly ignored (except for a few awards for Jessica Chastain, which were more for her collective films in 2011 than CORIOLANUS in particular). And why is DRIVE only up for Sound Editing?!

Enough about what wasn’t nominated. Lets focus on where we’re going to place out bets! It helps me to make two lists — the list that I really want to see win needs to be gotten out of the way first. Once it’s down, I can ignore it and guesstimate how I think the consensus will vote. Never bet on the movies you love, unless you know everyone else loved it as much as you did.

CATEGORY – – WHO I’D BET ON – – WHO I’D VOTE FOR
Best Picture — The Artist — Drive (not nominated)
Director – – Michel Hazanavicius – – Terrence Malick
Actress — Michelle Williams — Glenn Close
Actor – – George Clooney – – Demian Bichir
Supporting Actress — Jessica Chastain — Janet McTeer
Supporting Actor – – Christopher Plummer – – Kenneth Branagh
Documentary Feature — Hell & Back Again — Paradise Lost 3
Animated Feature – – Rango – – Chico & Rita
Foreign Feature — A Separation — City of Life & Death (not nominated)
Adapted Screenplay – – The Descendants – – Moneyball
Original Screenplay — The Artist — Midnight in Paris

It helps me to examine the history of the awards when choosing my Oscar picks. It is fun to know who won and when, but it is often fascinating to learn who lost, and to consider why the Academy voted the way they did. Here are a few trivia questions, some just for fun, others to lend an eye toward the past. You have one week to debate with your friends or Google by yourself; I will post the answers on February 26, a few hours before the Oscar telecast begins on ABC.


1. Which Best Picture winner had the shortest running time?
2. What was the first color film to win Best Picture?
3. What was the only animated feature nominated for Best Picture before the inclusion of a separate category for Best Animated Feature?
4. On 3 occasions The Oscars have been postponed by at least 1 day. In which years did this occur?
5. In which year were the awards first televised?
6. Name the youngest nominee for Best Director.
7. For which film did Alfred Hitchcock win Best Director?
8. Name the only Oscar winner who also held a Nobel Prize.
9. Who went off-script while presenting an award in 1990 to decry the lack of a Best Picture nomination for “Do The Right Thing?”
10. “Churchill’s Island” (1941) has the distinction of winning the first award in which category?
11. Who has hosted the most Academy Awards ceremonies?
12. How long are winners currently given for their acceptance speeches?
13. Who sang the show-stopping comical duet “It’s Great Not To Be Nominated” in 1958?
14. How tall is Oscar?
15. Who was at the podium when the awards were notoriously “streaked” by a naked man running across the stage?
16. Who is the only person to ever refuse an Oscar?
17. Name the two actors who won Best Director and Best Picture for their directorial debuts.
18. Which two families have three generations of Oscar winners?
19. Who has received the most nominations for Best Actress?
20. To whom did Marlon Brando lose his first nomination for Best Actor for his performance in “A Streetcar Named Desire?”
21. Name the only character that two different performers in different films have won acting awards for playing.
22. What was the most recent film to win every award for which it was nominated?
23. What was the first non-English language film nominated for Best Picture?
24. Which composer has won the most Oscars for Best Original Score?
25. What was the first animated film to win the Oscar for Best Original Song?

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How To Use TRIVIA To Handicap Your OSCAR BETS: 2012 Edition

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them on February 19th, 2012 by Jim Delaney

One week from tonight, the 84th Academy Awards will be handed out at the Kodak Theater. As with 2011, I have not made any bets on this year’s ceremony.We have a pretty interesting field this year, and by interesting I mean I still don’t know what to make of it, a dilemma for anyone looking for a safe office pool bet. Though THE ARTIST has shown some steam recently with the BAFTAs, the critics’ awards in previous weeks were anybody’s game. Critical awards in some cities heavily favored THE ARTIST or HUGO or THE DESCENDANTS, while others spread the love more evenly. It is also notable that many of those critics observed in their top 10 lists that 2011 was a particularly weak year for movies. I’m not certain I agree with that. I think every year is a great year for movies; the problem is that so many strong movies never find an audience. I don’t love this years list of Oscar nominees.

Hell, even if I cobbled together a personal list from the 2012 nominees for Oscars, BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Independent Spirit Awards, I would still have a few favorite films that were snubbed across the board. Among those, the best movie I saw last year was China’s CITY OF LIFE & DEATH. The only appreciation from an American body it received was last year from the L.A. Film Critics Association. CITY OF LIFE & DEATH premiered in China in 2009, played the American festical circuit in 2010, and received limited general release in 2011. Who’s to say what year it even belongs in for American awards?! Similarly, Ralph Fiennes’ outstanding directorial debut CORIOLANUS was made in 2010, is listed on IMDb as 2011, and is only being released outside of New York and Los Angeles this month! I understand that Academy rules focus on the NY and LA releases, which would put it in the running for the 84th Oscars, but among U.S. awards it went roundly ignored (except for a few awards for Jessica Chastain, which were more for her collective films in 2011 than CORIOLANUS in particular). And why is DRIVE only up for Sound Editing?!

Enough about what wasn’t nominated. Lets focus on where we’re going to place out bets! It helps me to make two lists — the list that I really want to see win needs to be gotten out of the way first. Once it’s down, I can ignore it and guesstimate how I think the consensus will vote. Never bet on the movies you love, unless you know everyone else loved it as much as you did.

CATEGORY – – WHO I’D BET ON – – WHO I’D VOTE FOR
Best Picture — The Artist — Drive (not nominated)
Director – – Michel Hazanavicius – – Terrence Malick
Actress — Michelle Williams — Glenn Close
Actor – – George Clooney – – Demian Bichir
Supporting Actress — Jessica Chastain — Janet McTeer
Supporting Actor – – Christopher Plummer – – Kenneth Branagh
Documentary Feature — Hell & Back Again — Paradise Lost 3
Animated Feature – – Rango – – Chico & Rita
Foreign Feature — A Separation — City of Life & Death (not nominated)
Adapted Screenplay – – The Descendants – – Moneyball
Original Screenplay — The Artist — Midnight in Paris

It helps me to examine the history of the awards when choosing my Oscar picks. It is fun to know who won and when, but it is often fascinating to learn who lost, and to consider why the Academy voted the way they did. Here are a few trivia questions, some just for fun, others to lend an eye toward the past. You have one week to debate with your friends or Google by yourself; I will post the answers on February 26, a few hours before the Oscar telecast begins on ABC.


1. Which Best Picture winner had the shortest running time?
2. What was the first color film to win Best Picture?
3. What was the only animated feature nominated for Best Picture before the inclusion of a separate category for Best Animated Feature?
4. On 3 occasions The Oscars have been postponed by at least 1 day. In which years did this occur?
5. In which year were the awards first televised?
6. Name the youngest nominee for Best Director.
7. For which film did Alfred Hitchcock win Best Director?
8. Name the only Oscar winner who also held a Nobel Prize.
9. Who went off-script while presenting an award in 1990 to decry the lack of a Best Picture nomination for “Do The Right Thing?”
10. “Churchill’s Island” (1941) has the distinction of winning the first award in which category?
11. Who has hosted the most Academy Awards ceremonies?
12. How long are winners currently given for their acceptance speeches?
13. Who sang the show-stopping comical duet “It’s Great Not To Be Nominated” in 1958?
14. How tall is Oscar?
15. Who was at the podium when the awards were notoriously “streaked” by a naked man running across the stage?
16. Who is the only person to ever refuse an Oscar?
17. Name the two actors who won Best Director and Best Picture for their directorial debuts.
18. Which two families have three generations of Oscar winners?
19. Who has received the most nominations for Best Actress?
20. To whom did Marlon Brando lose his first nomination for Best Actor for his performance in “A Streetcar Named Desire?”
21. Name the only character that two different performers in different films have won acting awards for playing.
22. What was the most recent film to win every award for which it was nominated?
23. What was the first non-English language film nominated for Best Picture?
24. Which composer has won the most Oscars for Best Original Score?
25. What was the first animated film to win the Oscar for Best Original Song?

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10 or so FAVORITES OF 2011

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them on January 28th, 2012 by Jim Delaney

2011 was a peculiarly reminiscent year for my favorite movies. Maybe it’s because my age is rapidly approaching the Hitchhiker’s answer to The Big Question. Maybe we are at the cusp of a generational shift, wherein a perfect storm of technology, distribution platforms, and expanding thematic material have led us back to a cultural wild wild west like we have not seen since the Corman generation. Some films hearkened back to the tone of the 1970’s & 80’s films on which I was raised, films created by that film school educated Corman generation: Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, Spielberg et al. Some featured staple characters of the era: bands of felt and fur, buddy cops, and fringe-dwelling loners. Other films were created by luminaries whose 70’s and 80’s films aided in my nerd evolution: Woody Allen, Werner Herzog, and Pedro Almadovar all hit career highlights in 2011.

10. THE GUARD, written & directed by John Michael McDonagh. McDonagh’s brother Martin wrote and directed IN BRUGES, another stand out film for Brendan Gleeson, which makes me wonder what growing up in their house must have been like?! Gleeson plays County Galway police sergeant Gerry Boyle, a drunken whoring embarrassment of a cop, who realizes he is the one cop in his precinct who is not on take from local drug smugglers. Don Cheadle plays the Felix to Gleeson’s Oscar, FBI agent Wendell Everett. The interplay between these two powerful actors, so natural at their craft that they make delivering award-worthy performances seem easy, reminded me how long it’s been since we’ve had a really good buddy cop movie. Gleefully politically incorrect dialogue, some very unexpected dramatic twists, and a perfectly balanced tone of raunchiness and danger make THE GUARD a more enjoyable experience than a summer full of franchises.

9. THE MUPPETS, directed by James Bobin & RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, directed by Rupert Wyatt. The Muppets and the Apes were as much a part of my upbringing as STAR WARS. It is a great personal joy for me to see both return this year in a style befitting their positions in the nerd pantheon. The Muppets continue to load a cannon full of chickens and fire it at the fourth wall, and the Apes allegorically respond once again to the social and political climate in which they find themselves. It is an entirely different joy to see both return in a manner that hands the baton to a new generation, a direction that will hopefully lead to continued adventures. I’ve heard plenty of fans complain that these films are not up to their predecessors, that our 70’s and 80’s childhoods are somehow being tainted and capitalized upon; I couldn’t disagree more. The movies with Roddy McDowell in Ape make-up and Jim Henson operating Kermit have not gone anywhere. Our childhood is intact. It’s someone elses turn; if you grew up loving these characters, love them enough to let them go. Lose your cargo shorts and Metallica t-shirt, put on some long pants and a shirt with a collar, and take your kids to see the elder statesmen (statesmuppets? statesmonkeys?) of American fantasy films.

8. MONEYBALL, directed by Bennett Miller. written by Stan Chervin, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. I expected MONEYBALL to be good, but not that it would be a singular story within baseball films, and sports films in general. Miller shows the same sure-handed direction that he did with CAPOTE, similar to Eastwood at his best, allowing each moment to resonate without dragging. Miller’s style is a perfect match for for Zailian’s pace and Sorkin’s dialogue. Though Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) observes the tendency to romanticize baseball, there is very little thrill-of-the-grass here. This movie lives and breathes in the florescent lit cinderblock offices and conference rooms beneath the stadium. MONEYBALL has more in common with the verbal brinksmanship of THIRTEEN DAYS than it does with other sports movies. By the time the story turns to the action on the field, we have become so familiar with the head aches and heart attacks it took to get there, that the loses sting more deeply and the wins are joyous but nonetheless emotionally draining.

7. CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, written & directed by Werner Herzog. I have been a devout fan of Werner Herzog since a revival screening of NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (which I attended for extra credit in my high school German class) set me on a path of following him to corners of the world and the mind where most filmmakers fear to tread. In the past decade or so I’ve come to appreciate Herzog’s documentaries even more than his narrative films. His blatantly honest and provocatively insightful presence as interviewer and commentator makes his docs a unique experience in the field of nonfiction film. Here he has chosen to use the 3-D format to render one of those remote corners that most of us will never ever get to see, and in greater detail than we ever could have hoped for. The titular caves are in rural France, and contain probably the earliest known examples of cave drawings by prehistoric man. Leave it to Herzog to take an art form so untested that many still see it more as a commercial ploy than a tool of a “serious artist” and use it to explore the most ancient form of human storytelling.

6. 13 ASSASSINS, directed by Takashi Miike. Being a fan of Takashi Miike can be as frustrating an experience as being a Prince fan. These are two such relentlessly creative forces that their output frequently tasks our ability to process all of it. Their work is usually very good, but occasionally mediocre; often when they do something amazing, they’re already two or three projects further down the road by the time we realize it! 13 ASSASSINS is as impressive as Miike’s manic ICHI THE KILLER, but it also contains the gnawing reservedness of AUDITION. When samurai ultra violence erupts, bodies fly and blood spatters like a hurricane. In between those battles though, we are treated to vividly drawn character moments worthy of Kihachi Okamoto. Of course Miike had already completed two features and a television pilot, and was shooting another feature and in pre-production on yet another, by the time 13 ASSASSINS opened in the U.S.

5. THE TREE OF LIFE, written & directed by Terrence Malick. A movie theater in Connecticut reportedly taped a sign inside their box office informing patrons that there would be no refunds for people who do not understand THE TREE OF LIFE. I love Terrence Malick for maintaining the same elegiac vision that frustrated a legion of moviegoers who expected a Pacific Theater companion to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN from the trailers for THE THIN RED LINE. This movie really is nowhere near as challenging as some make it out to be. It is simply the story of the O’Briens, an average family in an average Texas town, with three average children growing up in the 1950’s. What sets it aside from a litany of other coming of age films is that Malick chooses to focus on quiet moments of genuine personal epiphany rather than the same tired big family gathering events that stereotypically drive these stories. We are told very little, but we are shown everything, if we pay attention. My favorite example of this is a sublime moment after Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt, having a damn good year!) threatens his family and evicts his sons from the dinner table. The dinner table has been a standard symbol of the family in so many films. When Mr. O’Brien sits back down to his dinner following the uproar, he does not scoot his chair to the table, he yanks to entire table to his chair. If you cannot understand the significance of the gesture in that image, I wouldn’t give you a refund either!

4. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, written & directed by Woody Allen. It is so great to see Woody Allen back to form. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS contains so much of what has marked his most endearing and enduring comedies: the fantasy of PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, the literacy of LOVE & DEATH, the cultural hero worship of PLAY IT AGAIN SAM, the cinematic visual acuity of SHADOWS & FOG, the free spirited romance of VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA, and the colorfully drawn characters and vivid use of locations from a dozen New York stories. Not content to simply repeat what he is so good at, Woody uses the framework of a standard time travel fantasy to reflect on reconciling oneself with the past, and deliver a little hope to hopeless romantics everywhere.

3. THE SKIN I LIVE IN, written & directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Holy $#!+ Almodóvar is a mad genius?!? Aside from his own impressive resume, I dig him for rescuing my hero Guillermo del Toro from the Hollywood system, by bringing Guillermo to Spain and producing some of his best films. Now Almodóvar raises the bar for intelligent horror so far that even Guillermo must be awe struck. THE SKIN I LIVE IN has elements of EYES WITHOUT A FACE and the nervous energy of early Cronenberg, but the psyche-bending sexual politics and tragic performances are pure Almodóvar. Many Americans, and perhaps many in the international audience, were first introduced to Antonio Banderas by several Almodóvar films in the 1980’s. Happily, Almodóvar’s best film in years also affords him the opportunity to present Banderas with his most challenging role in years. THE SKIN I LIVE IN is that rare kinky quirky celebration of unsettling oddity and plain otherness that I could only recommend to a select type of movie fan; if you have an open mind and indelicate sensibilities, you’ll be in for a helluva ride.

2. DRIVE, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Refn has batted it out of the park yet again. Whether stalking the earth through the eyes of a Danish drug pusher, a one-eyed Viking crusader, a frequent customer of the British penal system, or a Hollywood stunt driver, Refn has an acute ability to explore the inner life of violent men. His judicious delivery of only the information we absolutely need allows DRIVE to sidestep most standard “action movie” cliches, focusing instead on the soul of a man who is comfortable driving 100mph on surface streets, but who is out of his element trying to hold a simple conversation. We don’t need to know why the Driver (Ryan Gosling, also having a damn good year!) is so capable of unleashing skull crushing fury, only that he can, and will. Something in his life has led him excel at driving and close-quarter hand to hand killing. The vast majority of disposable crime movies would give him PTSD military flashbacks, or a reluctant monologue detailing past personal experience with abuse. Instead DRIVE gives us a man who for whatever reason has these abilities, and finds himself tasked with conflicting options to use them, as well as the question of whether that use will make him a villain or a hero. I’ve heard that James Sallis, on whose novel DRIVE is based, has written a sequel that picks up with Driver six years later. Here’s hoping for another movie; Gosling as Driver just might be the coolest antihero since Kurt Russell wore an eyepatch.

1. CITY OF LIFE & DEATH, written & directed by Chuan Lu. I am cheating here to a degree, but also reiterating my 13 ASSASSINS point about international release dates. This movie opened in China in 2009, and played in many other countries and international film festivals throughout 2009 and 2010. The U.S. limited theatrical release did not happen until this year. Scheduling doesn’t matter, CITY OF LIFE & DEATH is one for the ages. The only thing that kept the story from crushing me was the awe that I felt for Chuan Lu’s filmmaking skill. The film follows civilian of Nanjing and Japanese soldiers who invaded in 1937. Masterful black and white cinematography simultaneously recalls Movietone news reels, rule defining textbook films like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, and rule smashing cinéma vérité luminaries like BATTLE OF ALGIERS. The sound design is every bit as ambitious and unnerving. This is not simply one of the most intense war movies I can think of, it is one of the most flawlessly realized films in any genre that I have ever seen.

PLUS A FEW OTHER FAVORITES:


THE ADJUSTMENT
BUREAU Love is God, God is Love, and you can experience both if you have the right hat.
THE ARTIST I’m so happy that this large an audience and critical mass has embraced a silent film. This should send a message to The Powers That Be that audiences will accept something out of left field as long as it’s good … and has a puppy in it!
ATTACK THE BLOCK makes SUPER 8 look like THE GOONIES.
COLOMBIANA Yes Luc Besson has taken us here before, but Zoe Saldana just might be the bad@$$ love child of Pam Grier and Charles Bronson.
CRAZY STUPID LOVE Like I say, Gosling having a helluva year!
THE DEBT Raise your hand if you knew this was a remake.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK Hey, someone still has to champion Hammer style horror films, and I’m just the nerd to do it!
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO See, not all remakes suck, give ’em a chance.
THE HEDGEHOG This is the love story that ONE DAY and LIKE CRAZY advertised themselves as being.
THE MAN NOBODY KNEW To me the hallmark of a good liberal is one who questions his own ideology as vigorously has he does those with whom he disagrees. Carl Colby is my kind of liberal.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE This is why we have film festivals. Hollywood does what they do, sometimes they even do it well, but it’s very reassuring to see that a movie like this can find an audience.
MELANCHOLIA I know you’re not really a Nazi, Lars, and I’ll always love you for stirring the $#!+storm.
RANGO the Man With No Name wanders into CHINATOWN, disguised as a lizard. What’s not to love?!
WAR HORSE I was totally unprepared for Spielberg to use this story to send a valentine to John Ford and Cecil B. DeMille.
WARRIOR God bless Nick Nolte. I doubt he’ll win his Oscar nomination, but I’m so glad they at least acknowledged him.

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BREATHLESS (1960)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on December 31st, 2011 by Jim Delaney


From Friday, January 11, 2008.

In French w/ English subtitles
Written & Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, starring Jean Belmondo, Jean Seberg and Jean-Pierre Melville.

Michel is a small-time car thief who becomes a big-time criminal when he murders a policeman. No master felon, Michel is an impetuous young man more focused on presenting a Bogart-style tough guy image than in actually learning the ropes of being a tough guy. His Hollywood dream wouldn’t be complete without a girl on his arm, so rather than fleeing the country after the murder, Michel sticks around to convince a young woman to fall for him and escape with him to Italy.

The French New Wave directors of the 1950’s and 60’s began as a group of critics who deconstructed Hollywood film style, helped define it as an art and a science, and coined the phrase “Film Noir.” Several New Wave luminaries helped create BREATHLESS: Godard adapted his script from a treatment by Francois Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol is credited as “technical advisor.” Jean-Pierre Melville, playing Pavulesco in BREATHLESS, directed some of the best French noir thrillers of the 1950’s. BREATHLESS was the end of French emulation of Hollywood, and the beginning of challenging new shooting styles and story structures that would have a lasting effect on America’s Film School Generation — Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg and all their 70’s pals.

It’ll finish Thursday.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT (with Spoilers!) from 12.31.2011

The moment we meet Michel, he introduces himself as “an asshole,” and then spends a significant portion of BREATHLESS proving it. Michel enjoys presenting his Bogart-style image, endlessly repeating Bogey’s pensive Sam Spade gesture of rubbing his lip with his thumb. What his Bogey impression lacks is Sam Spade’s control of a situation, Rick Blaine’s calculating foresight, or Philip Marlowe’s confidence with women. Had Michel studied THE MALTESE FALCON, he would have known when in his own story to cut his losses and get out alive. Bogey’s Rick in CASABLANCA might have taught Michel who he can really trust, who would double cross him, and how to play both.

A closer read of Bogart’s persona in THE BIG SLEEP might have encouraged Michel not to whine and plead with his former lover Patricia to escape with him to Italy. He would have been decisive rather than manipulating, which would have made him the Bogey he wants to be, as well as the Romeo she longed for. Indecisiveness is Michel’s fatal flaw. He doesn’t know what he wants or who he wants, and even if he did, he doesn’t know from one moment to the next what he is willing to do to get it. He wants to avoid being caught with a stolen car enough to kill a policeman, but when the dragnet is closing in around him, he is incapable of making the choices required by his man-of-action front.

Within the first few minutes of BREATHLESS Godard turns crime movies, and the very idea of a movie, inside out. Voiceovers are a staple of the Film Noir genre. After Michel steals a car, he drives around describing what he enjoys about France, but before long we realize this is no ordinary voiceover. He is not simply thinking out loud for the sake of exposition; he turns and addresses the audience, as if we are riding shotgun. This would be a standard breaking of the fourth wall, but BREATHLESS doesn’t stop there. Michel both addresses the camera and directs its gaze along the Pontoise road, pointing out hitchhikers, farm houses, annoying drivers, and highway police. Further, Godard allows interaction between the camera and passersby that would cause most other directors to cut and reset their shot. In scenes where Michel and Patricia walk through Paris, people stop and turn to watch the filming, some looking into the camera as well. Godard requests no suspension of disbelief; his story is fiction, but it coexists with and occasionally collides with reality.

Inasmuch as Michel is a vicious brat disguised as a dangerous man, BREATHLESS cloaks its examination and inversion of the tools of cinematic storytelling in the suits and trappings of crime drama. Michel’s desire to live like he is in a movie virtually wills into being a movie of his life and death, but he has no more control over Godard’s film than he does over his own story. Michel would love it if you had bought a ticket to see him outgun the cops and out-con the cons and drive off into the sunset with plenty of money and Tinkerbell incarnate. Godard will have none of it. He will allow you to visit with Michel just long enough to feel like you got the story of guns and glory you paid for; and he’ll allow you just enough time with Patricia to get a sense of romantic intrigue. In between teasing those expectations Godard may test your attention span with protracted conversational sequences, which do very little to further the story, but greatly reveal his characters. Moments like these were virtually unheard of in Hollywood films before the France’s La Nouvelle Vague movement; later their influence could be seen in American films by Hal Ashby and Robert Altman. When Godard is not exploring his characters, or allowing Michel to explore his personal Film Noir, he is just as likely to use BREATHLESS to wander Paris like a painter, equipped with a camera in lieu of a canvass. He photographs Paris not as a tourist showing us what we have already seen in countless other films, but as a patriot in love with his city and seeking to share its sidestreets as much as its landmarks, the way Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese would do with New York in ensuing decades.

My earliest encounter with BREATHLESS made me think it was an art film disguised as a crime drama. Now that “art film” strikes me as vague and generic a term as “action film,” I come to realize the BREATHLESS is a fully realized artistic happening disguised as a movie. It is opening night at a photography exhibit, a jazz session on a rainy afternoon, a staged actors’ reading, and a heated debate amongst coffeehouse poets all tied up in a celluloid bow.

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THE MUPPETS (2011)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on November 30th, 2011 by Jim Delaney


Thursday November 10, 2011 at the Regal Fenway Stadium, Boston, MA.

Directed by James Bobin, written by Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller, starring Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, and The Muppets.

I love the Muppets. When I was in preschool I was too preoccupied with SPEED RACER and JOHNNY QUEST to notice SESAME STREET. I was aware of SESAME STREET, but I didn’t watch it. My first real connection to Jim Henson’s characters came when I entered the first grade, and they entered prime time. Eventually I grew to appreciate the Disneyesque optimism of SESAME STREET, but I always preferred the Looney Tunes rambunctiousness of THE MUPPET SHOW. Because I love the Muppets, I hold them to a higher standard than entertainment for which I have less of an affinity; happily their first feature film in twelve years is worthy of that standard.

The script for the new film apparently had an extensive development period. It helps to have writers who are true believers in the world Jim Henson created a generation or two ago. It helps even more that one of those writers is an established television star who also has a string of mostly very successful films to his credit. Jason Segel‘s puppeteer character in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, which he also wrote, hinted at his affinity for The Muppets. If someone loved the work of Robert E. Howard and John Buscema as much as Segel clearly loves Henson’s work, this summer’s revival of CONAN THE BARBARIAN would have been an amazing movie.

The core story of THE MUPPETS is shrewdly cobbled together from several archetypes of both cinematic style and classic story telling. Segel’s character Gary has a brother named Walter who is straight out of BILLY ELLIOT or RUDY. Walter so loves the Muppets that the greatest possible joy he could imagine is the chance that he might one day meet them. What separates Walter from Billy Elliot and Rudy Ruettiger, and indeed from Gary, is that Walter actually is a Muppet! This is part of what makes Muppet films unique: even as they embrace archetypes, like the underdog runt searching for his place in the world, they turn them on their head and subvert them to the Muppets’ own rules. In this story a human man and a Muppet can be brothers — and no one notices this as odd!

A staple element of ensemble buddy movies ranging from Frank Sinatra’s Danny Ocean up to, well, George Clooney’s Danny Ocean is the reunion of old friends for a new purpose. It worked in THE WILD BUNCH, it worked when Jake & Elwood Blues got the band back together, and it works for Kermit. In fact, it works doubly so for Kermit. Kermit’s quest to round up his stray friends propels this basic story of the Muppets’ rallying to save their old theater from their 70’s variety show days. The reunion angle simultaneously allows for the introduction of the Muppets to audiences too young to recall their last theatrical entry while addressing themes of aging and imposed obsolescence that resonate with anyone old enough to have watched the original primetime airings of THE MUPPET SHOW. Reminiscent of how Kal-El must have felt upon reading Lois Lane’s editorial on a world without Superman in SUPERMAN RETURNS, this film finds Kermit realizing that television has knocked the Muppets to the rock bottom of the hip-n-trendy scale. Kermit’s reunion with Miss Piggy culminates in a stroll through Paris, poignantly acknowledging that Muppets have to work as hard as humans to make love and friendship last, in a scene that would seem very much at home in a Woody Allen film. Each of these moments manage both the easy fix of keeping the pace moving, and the difficult trick of perfectly nailing the tone for each scene to keep audiences of all ages engaged.

All of this classic film structure aside, it’s wonderful to see the Muppets have not lost their touch for lunacy. They were expert practitioners of metafiction before that term was applied to film or television. Probably the best example of this is the song “Man or Muppet,” sung by Gary and Walter. As the man and Muppet brothers explore their existential void in the song, they cross into each others crisis, and transcend the film in a sequence reminiscent of some of the more groundbreaking 80’s music videos. Segel’s over the top Meatloaf-esque operatic wailing both parodies heart-on-your-sleeve pop songs and gives this oddball tune a ring of truth. I saw this movie in a screening geared toward college students. The general mumbling and rampant texting around me during this scene left the impression that this audience was more laughing at this moment than with it. This was a sequence worthy of The Marx Bros or Mel Brooks, but unless you are schooled in Groucho and Mongo, the absurd hilarity and sincere subtext of this song will not fully resonate.

Rumors on the internets about a “surprise cameo” were apparently referring to a moment in “Man or Muppet,” though the entire movie is laden with cameos, from Mickey Rooney to Rico Rodriguez. I’m glad that these cameos were not strictly reserved for celebrities, but also for lesser known characters from the Muppet universe. Personally I was a big fan of MUPPETS TONIGHT, the mid 90’s attempt to revitalize the Muppets on primetime TV. One of the characters from that revival, the dimwitted and overly confident lounge singer Johnny Fiama, appears during this song as Jason Segel’s Muppet doppleganger. The only thing that could have made Johnny’s appearance better would be if they found room for his angry monkey bodyguard Sal Minella; here’s hoping there’s room for Sal & Johnny in the next Muppet movie!

I’m a fan of divisive movies; I’ll always prefer a movie that folks either love or hate, even if I’m among those who hate it, to a movie that we are all equally ambivalent about. If you follow the IMDb message boards, you’ll see that THE MUPPETS has no shortage of detractors who bemoan nearly every Muppet effort since the passing of Jim Henson. I’m also a die hard STAR TREK fan; just as I acknowledge that the primary mission of the most recent STAR TREK film was to acquire a new generation of fans, such is the case with this film. My audience full of college kids texting each other were mostly born after Jim Henson died. If you grew up wit THE MUPPET SHOW on TV like I did, you’ve already had your fair share of Muppet films. These are the classic Muppets for a new generation, and they accomplish that job with characteristic style and surprising grace. THE MUPPETS will not change your life or make you a better person, but it just might open your kids’ minds the way SESAME STREET and THE MUPPET SHOW did yours.

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DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on November 20th, 2011 by Jim Delaney


From Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Written & Directed by Spike Lee, starring Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson, Joie Lee, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, and John Turturro.

24 hours on one block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY.
On the hottest day of the summer, racial tensions simmer between residents of a predominately African American and Puerto Rican neighborhood, and the Italian American owners of a pizza parlor. And then they explode.

Spike Lee had touched on racism earlier in SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT and SCHOOL DAZE, but following what became know as The Howard Beach Incident, he decided the gloves needed to come off. This is the script than earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and the film that earned him a Palm D’or nomination at Cannes. It also earned him the fear of critics like newspaper columnist Joe Klein, who wrote “Spike Lee’s reckless new movie DO THE RIGHT THING … opens June 30 (in not too many theaters near you, one hopes).” The controversy surrounding DO THE RIGHT THING in the summer of 1989 cemented Spike’s reputation as a voice who demands to be heard.

It’ll finish Friday.
Love, Jim

P.S. Come early, or you’ll miss Rosie fightin’ the power with Public Enemy!

AFTER THOUGHT from 11.20.2011
I don’t know if Spike Lee still does this, but in the early days of his feature directing career, he used to do college tours with his films in the weeks before they opened. My brother Ed & I used our Emerson College IDs to see him present DO THE RIGHT THING at a theater in M.I.T. This was just a few months after MISSISSIPPI BURNING, a fictionalized story lacking any significant African American characters despite its civil rights themes, received 7 Oscar nominations. Ed and I arrived fairly early; we were among the first 100 people into the theater, in what turned out to be a packed house with many people turned away. Waiting for the movie to start, I spotted a young man with a t-shirt featuring a parody of the MISSISSIPPI BURNING logo: “Brooklyn Burning.” I approached this guy to ask him where he got this shirt, and I realized it was Spike Lee! I immediately forgot the shirt and became tongue-tied. I managed to introduce myself and thank him for this screening; he shook my hand and thanked me for coming out to see the movie. During his introduction to the film, Spike acknowledged early critics who predicted DO THE RIGHT THING would incite racial violence, balancing their concerns with his personal mandate that “the gloves come off” following the aforementioned Howard Beach incident. In aspiring to directly address an elephant in the room that had been ignored for years by mainstream films, he calmly and humbly set the bar very high for himself and an ensuing generation of film makers.

I rolled DO THE RIGHT THING nearly two decades later in our agency conference room. It was generally well received, but to my younger coworkers who were raised on the generation of filmmakers who followed in Spike’s footsteps, they found the story overly episodic without enough of a narrative through-line. While that is a fairly accurate point, I submit that it is irrelevant, as DO THE RIGHT THING is not a standard three act structure with a protagonist and an antagonist. Oh, it’s very well disguised as one, enough so to make it marketable. If you want to pick a “good guy” and a “bad guy” out of this bunch, Spike’s pizza deliverer Mookie is a funny and likable enough hero, and Danny Aiello’s pizzeria owner Sal is frequently bombastic enough to be a villain. You can even find a story arc over the course of the single day storyline in that Mookie begins the film as an apathetic quasi-irresponsible kid, and through a sequence of events beyond his control, emerges as a man who makes a stand and takes control with an irreversible decision that affects his entire neighborhood.

Yes, you can say that DO THE RIGHT THING is about Mookie and Sal, and the general racial tension that I used to pitch this film to my coworkers. On further analysis though, I don’t think this is that kind of movie, and I submit that the title alone tells you what type of movie this is. Let’s look at two other titles: TOMBSTONE (1993) and WYATT EARP (1994). I like both, I am in the minority that prefers WYATT EARP, but I think it is notable that their titles alone tell us that these are very different movies. TOMBSTONE is about one event, the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral, and its effect on the lives of many people. It begins shortly before October 26, 1881 and ends shortly after, padding its running time with some fun western cliches, plus a level of historical inaccuracy required to make These Guys heroes and Those Guys villains. WYATT EARP is about many events in the life of one man, who lived from 1848 to 1929. Since it follows this one man’s life, WYATT EARP is able to give us a more nuanced portrait of Wyatt Earp than TOMBSTONE, examining positive and negative aspects of Earp’s life and personality. DO THE RIGHT THING does not belong to any one character, but there is also more at work than a single event in the lives of many people.

A title like DO THE RIGHT THING has less similarity to TOMBSTONE or WYATT EARP, and more to do with an intangible like THE RIGHT STUFF (1983). It’s probably no coincidence that when I screened THE RIGHT STUFF, some viewers preferred APOLLO 13, again because of its strong central characters an singular story arc. THE RIGHT STUFF and DO THE RIGHT THING are titles that tell you that this is a movie about a specific idea or value. As a pilot you either have THE RIGHT STUFF or you don’t, and only fellow pilots can really discern who possesses that quality. On a sweltering day in Bed-Stuy, with a continuing heatwave expected the following day, you can either DO THE RIGHT THING or not. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) pointedly admonishes Mookie to “always to the right thing. That’s it.” He does not tell Mookie what the right thing is, or how to do it, only when to do it (always). This is a film about each character’s decision to do right or not, and what happens when one person’s decision collides with that of another. ***SPOLIER ALERT — skip to the next paragraph if you have not seen the film*** — Spike Lee has observed that more have criticized Mookie’s decision to through a garbage can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria than have objected to the N.Y.P.D. character’s decision to use a lethal (and now illegal) choke hold on Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn).***

To some of my former coworkers, and maybe to some who read this, DO THE RIGHT THING plays as a little outdated. If this is so, it is because we do not make as many films these days about intangibles like the Right Stuff, the Right Thing to do, or faith and doubt. [Spike Lee addressed faith and doubt in THE MIRACLE AT ST. ANA in a manner rarely seen since THE MISSION (1986) and other films written by Robert Bolt.] Because DO THE RIGHT THING wrangles that quality of a single person with the inequality of races in a neighborhood and a nation, the story is able to show examples of each across its spectrum of characters. Sal is not a villain through and through; early in the film he treats Mookie with the same stern affection as he does his own two sons, and embraces his position in this neighborhood, even over the objections of one of those sons. Mookie is not a hero through and through, but don’t take my word for it, ask his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez). Da Mayor tries to live by his own advice, and be a good guy, but he is mostly seen as a bum by those around him. Good intentions go wrong. Decisions are often hard to make, and often have unintended consequences. Inaction comes with its own consequences. As long as these things are true, DO THE RIGHT THING will be one for the ages.

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