Friday, October 28, 2011

In Honor of Halloween: Films to Scare You

Here are some of my favorites:

Alfred Hitchock's classic "The Birds" (1963) starring Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor and Susan Pleshette truly scared me as a child and I believe it gave my daughter a real fear of seagulls.  Alfred Hitchcock is the master of suspense.

"The Haunting" (1963) directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom and Richard Johnson, haunted me for years.  I saw it as a 9 year old and could not sleep without a light on for years.  I still find long hallways with lots of doors very disturbing.  **Side note:  The hallway with the doors in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland was modeled after this film.

Roman Polasnki's "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes and Ruth Gordon, is a film I did not see in its entirety until a couple of years ago and was completely blown away by the stark nature of the film and the way in which Roman Polanski builds the suspense.  Seemingly ordinary people are thrown into such a horror story that it makes you wonder if it could happen to you.  A true classic.

"The Thing" (1982) starring Kurt Russell is the John Carpenter remake of the 1951 film of the same name starring James Arness that I watched on Saturday afternoons as a child.  John Carpenter is another master in the genre of terror films and this one does not disappoint.

"The Silence of the Lambs" (1991) directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins and Scott Glenn, is an Academy Award winning film (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay) that is a must see for any film lover.  It is suspenseful, horrifying, gripping and one of the finest ensemble casts ever assembled.  Put it at the top of your list.

"The Sixth Sense"(1999) directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring Bruce Willis, Toni Collette and Haley Joel Osment, is an experience the first time you see it.  You are caught off guard more than once and treated to one of the best endings in film.  I did not see it coming.

"Signs" (2002) also directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix and Rory Culkin, is one of those films that people either find silly or find truly frightening.  I was one of the latter people.  The scene at the birthday party made me jump for weeks whenever I thought about it.  One of my favorite memories of my daughter's 13th birthday party was picking them up from the theater after seeing "Signs."  I have never seen a group of 13 year old girls run so fast and work so hard to get that car door open and slam it shut.  "Signs" did what a suspense film is supposed to do - scare you into running to your mom.

"28 Days Later" (2002) directed by Danny Boyle and starring Cillian Murphy, is a film that I made the mistake of watching alone, in the dark, in my family room while it was being remodeled.  This film scared the living daylights out of me.  At one point, the plastic sheeting over my new bookcase rattled and I nearly fainted.  This film is a classic and will give you nightmares.

"28 Weeks Later" (2007) directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and starring Jeremy Renner, Rose Byrne and Robert Carlyle, I, again, made the mistake of watching alone, in the dark, in my family room, but this time it was completed.  Did not help.  I honestly think that this film was even scarier.  It is one of those films that you wish you would stop watching but you just can't.  I guarantee that you will be frightened.

"The Ring" (2002) was directed by Gore Verbinski and starred Naomi Watts.  All I can say is SEE IT.  You will never look at ferries, horses, televisions, little girls or videotapes the same again.

"The Descent" (2005) directed by Neil Marshall and starring Shauna MacDonald, Natalie Mendoza and Alex Reid, is another film that I viewed at home, alone, in the dark, in my family room.  I was not expecting great cinema.  I was wrong.  It may not be a masterpiece, however, it is very, very scary as it drags you down into the cave with these poor women who you want to desperately help.  It is a chilling film.

"The Crazies" (2010) directed by Beck Eisner, is a small film that I'm sure you've probably never heard of.  It stars the wonderful Timothy Olyphant ("Deadwood" "Justified") and it gave me quite a scare.

"Drag Me To Hell" (2009) directed by Sam Raimi and starring Alison Lohman and Justin Long, is a film I saw with my daughter and her friend, who spent most of the film peaking out from behind his sweatshirt.  "Drag Me To Hell" is a scary, suspenseful film that has a surprise ending.  I was thoroughly entertained and frightened.

Last, but certainly not least, is "Se7en" (1995) directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman and the incredibly evil Kevin Spacey, is truly one of the scariest films I've ever seen.  Again I saw this alone, but this time I was in a dark theater.  Not a good idea.  The walk to my car afterwards was one of the longest walks of my life.  It is truly a classic.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Repulsion" - Repression or Abuse?

In my continuing effort to educate myself on all aspects of film making, and in honor of Halloween, I took the opportunity last night to view the infamous 1965 Roman Polanski film, "Repulsion." This film was groundbreaking in many ways, the most renowned of which was the performance by Catherine Deneuve in her second feature role (her first was "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.")  "Repulsion" is the story of a young woman who is repulsed by the sex act and eventually descends into madness with bloody consequences.  While I understand this woman was repulsed by any contact with men, whether it was actual physical contact or contact with any thing (such as a toothbrush or shaving razor) having to do with a man, I am not at all convinced it was simply due to her psychosis.  There is a disturbing scene where a family portrait is shown in close up and the little blond girl in the background is clearly Catherine's character.  The rest of the family is smiling and sitting close together, while Catherine's character is standing back, apart, distant and forlorn.  There is certainly something amiss in this family.  She is also visited every night at midnight by dreams of recurring sexual abuse and rape by the same man, whom I believe is probably her father.  Her attempt to lead a normal life as an adult becomes an impossibility for her and she commits murder to keep herself safe from what she perceives as tremendous danger to her person.  Repulsion such as this does not develop independently.  There is almost always a history of abuse that precedes it.  Thus I feel this is a film about a woman who endured violent abuse and lost her mind as a result.  This film is brilliant in its depiction of the slow deterioration of Catherine and Catherine plays it perfectly.  There are moments of fright and terror, but the true genius of the film are the close ups of Catherine and the long scenes of her loneliness and anguish.  You will feel like it will never end but hang in there with it.  This film is a genre all to itself, and the vision of the beautiful, yet so disturbed Catherine Deneuve will haunt you.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I Had a 50/50 Chance I'd Like This Film....

  ....and I did!  The thought of watching a film about a 29 year old man who is diagnosed with cancer and has a 50/50 chance of surviving (especially one that costars Seth Rogen) is not exactly the way I want to spend an evening but this film was worth it.  "50/50" starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("500 Days of Summer" "Inception"), Seth Rogen ("Knocked Up" "Pineapple Express"), Anna Kendrick ("Up In The Air" "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World"), Bryce Dallas Howard ("The Help" "Lady In The Water"), Angelica Houston ("Crimes and Misdemeanors" "The Grifters") and directed by Will Reiser (known until now as a TV producer and director) presents its subject matter with humor, respect and lots and lots of heart.  I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised by Seth Rogen.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt has already proven himself to be one of our finest young actors and his career will continue to rise with his performance in this film.  Seth Rogen plays his best friend and tones down his acting by about 100% compared to his other films.  He brings a much needed sense of humor, coupled with a true love for his friend, that is endearing and very true to life.  Bryce Dallas Howard plays the girlfriend who is in over her head and she continues to be quite an actress.  You can feel her anguish over wanting to be there for her boyfriend but not truly understanding just what he is facing.  Anna Kendrick plays the very young therapist who is assigned to help Joseph and she, too, continues to be one of our finest up and coming actors.  Her scenes with Joseph are some of the best in the film.  Angelica Houston is also superb as Joseph's mom who has always been overbearing and intrusive in his life.  He holds her at arm's length but comes to know that her love for him is just what he needs.  This is a film about the fragility of life, family, love in all shapes and sizes, finding joy, and finding peace.  Never did I think I would walk out of that theatre feeling better than when I went in, but this film achieved that.  This is film making at its best.  

Class #3: Clark Gable - A Classic Actor and Then Some

Clark Gable
"I'm just a lucky slob from Ohio who happened to be in the right place at the right time."

And aren't we lucky he was in that place!  Has there ever been an actor with more raw male energy and appeal?  Clark Gable was one of those rare actors who was adored by women and admired by men.  Women wanted to be with him and men wanted to BE him.  Clark Gable started his career as a bit player but it was apparent early on that he was something very special in Hollywood.  MGM put him under contract as one of their only leading men and cast him in everything.  My class was treated to the film "Red Dust" (1932) also starring Jean Harlow, Gene Raymond and Mary Astor.  This is a delightful film with lots of chemistry between Gable and Harlow (who was quite a comedian.)  Gable is Gable in this film but somehow that does not bother me.  He brings an energy and passion to his roles, whether he is a plantation owner, gangster, ladies man, gambler, or just a plain old guy, that entreats you to watch.  His character portrayals are vivid and lasting.  His sex appeal is legendary and stands the test of time.  Unfortunately, he died relatively young (59 years old) but he left behind a body of work that is unforgettable. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Classic Actors Class #2 - A Surprise Choice

Fred MacMurray

"I was lucky enough to make four pictures with Barbara (Stanwyck). In the first I turned her in, in the second I killed her, in the third I left her for another woman and in the fourth I pushed her over a waterfall. The one thing all these pictures had in common was that I fell in love with Barbara Stanwyck -- and I did, too."

Fred MacMurray is probably best remembered as the mild-mannered father on television's hit show, "My Three Sons" that aired in the 1960's, however, he had a storied career in film.  His rugged good looks, as evidenced above, surely helped him to land parts.  His most famous roles were in "Double Indemnity" where he played insurance salesman, Walter Neff, who is conned by the beautiful Barbara Stanwyck, "The Caine Mutiny" where he played the smarmy Lt. Tom Keefer and "The Apartment" where he played Jack Lemmon's boss, Jeff D. Sheldrake.  Fred MacMurray could be sinister and hard-edged, or funny and lovable.  He would be someone you wanted to know and depending upon the role he was playing, it would either turn out to be a good thing or a very bad thing, indeed.  He played cops, cowboys, businessmen, absent-minded professors and Naval officers in films from 1929 through 1978.  If you have never seen his work, I highly recommend the films mentioned above. His quiet demeanor will disarm you and creep under your skin.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Classic Actors Film Class: First Up......

James Stewart 

"Well, I think one of the main things that you have to think about when acting in the movies is to try not to make the acting show."

Was there ever, or will there ever be, a more likable actor?  James Stewart had one of the longest careers ever seen in Hollywood.  It lasted for 38 years, starting with films like "The Shopworn Angel" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and ending with his amazing turn in "The Shootist" at the age of 68.  James Stewart is probably best known for his roles as an every day man in films like "It's A Wonderful Life" and "The Philadelphia Story" but he could also play very dark characters such as his roles in the Hitchcock films "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "Vertigo."  James Stewart captured the essence of his characters and showed us how the average man would deal with situations of all kinds.  He could be carefree and loving, hard and conniving, confused and at his wit's end, or cold and downright evil.  Stewart was believable in every role he handled and he truly lived what he said above - his acting did not show - just his unfailing talent.  Oh, and he was also a highly decorated Air Force Officer who commanded bombardier squadrons during WWII, eventually receiving the rank of Brigadier General.  

His body of work is extensive but here is a list of the clips we watched:

"The Shopworn Angel" directed by H.C. Potter, starring Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.  Released in 1938.
"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" directed by Frank Capra, starring Stewart, Claude Rains and Jean Arthur.  Released in 1939.
"Destry Rides Again" directed by George Marshall, starring Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Winninger and Brian Donlevy.  Released in 1939.
"The Philadelphia Story" directed by George Cukor, starring Stewart, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.  Released in 1940.
"It's A Wonderful Life" directed by Frank Capra, starring Stewart and Donna Reed.  Released in 1947.
"Winchester '73" directed by Anthony Mann.  Released in 1950.
"The Man Who Knew Too Much" directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Stewart and Doris Day.  Released in 1956.
"Vertigo" directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Stewart and Kim Novak.  Released in 1958.
"Anatomy of a Murder" directed by Otto Preminger, starring Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzarra and Arthur O'Connell.  Released in 1959.
"The Shootist" directed by Don Siegel, starring Stewart and John Wayne.  Released in 1976.  

Other recommended films are:  "You Can't Take It With You" "Shop Around The Corner" "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" "The Man From Laramie" "Rear Window" and Stewart's favorite role, "Harvey."  

Moneyball Hits A Home Run

"Moneyball," based on the true story of Billy Beane and his determination to turn the Oakland Athletics into a winning team despite the team's lack of funds, not only hits a home run, it turns a triple play.  Starring Brad Pitt ("Tree of Life" "Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), Jonah Hill ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall" "Cyrus"), and Phillip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote" "Doubt"), with a screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and directed by Bennett Miller (this is his second feature film - the first was "Capote" - this is guy is talented), the triple play analogy is obvious.  Brad Pitt turns out another impressive acting feat in his interpretation of Billy Beane as a failed athlete who loves the game and wants to contribute however he can.  He takes his competitive drive and uses it to win off the field.  Brad Pitt makes him believable, likable and someone worth rooting for.  Jonah Hill is delightful as Peter Brand, the fresh out of college economics wizard (and baseball statistician with an amazing memory) whom Billy Beane hires as his assistant after listening to him at an opposing team's business office.  Together, Billy and Peter work out a formula for hiring players based solely on the numbers, much to the chagrin of the A's older, established scouts.  The result is well-documented and not a surprise, but you will still love the ride and are on the edge of your seat as you watch the storied team move ever closer to a championship, along with some very impressive records.  "Moneyball" will be added to the list of great baseball films, but even if you are not a fan of the sport, you will be a fan of this film.  It is ordinary people using their extraordinary skills and determination to make something happen and make it happen better than it has in the past.  It's always good to see the underdog win.