Monday, August 9, 2010

Favorite Movies


C & I were talking about favorite movies, and so I had to come up with a list. But before getting into the list (and a long one it is), three movies deserve a shout-out as precursors to later viewing preferences. These three movies I remember seeing at the "old" Page Theatre, before it so spectacularly burned down. These are:
South Pacific (1958). I remember my mother taking me to see this. It combines WWII and the musical. While I'm not at C's level as a musical lover, nonetheless, I am a life-long fan. And, of course, WWII has been an interest that I've kept my whole life. Maybe trying to understand that phenomena is what got my so interested in history. Or maybe I was just googly-eyed for Mitzi Gaynor.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959).This starred James Mason, whose brooding presence has always intrigued me. Also, this is my first cinematic encounter with SF and fantasy. (I don't remember seeing the Disney films at this age.). Now, the special effects look crude and the script cheesy, but I loved it.
Sink the Bismarck!. (1960).This was such a treat to see. Not only seeing the film, but my parents bought me a copy of the 45 rpm record of Johnny Horton's "Sink the Bismarck". The movie, in black and white, stars Kenneth Moore and the lovely Dana Wynter, who was very pretty in my seven year-old eyes. Part of the story is told from the headquarters of the Royal Navy where they tracked the Bismarck and then battle footage. A very cool movie—well to my seven-year old mind.
Okay, now the real list. I will put them in no special order of preference, although perhaps some very favorites and earliest seen toward the top.
  1. Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). I saw this in high school on television, and the image of Slim Pickens riding the Bomb down, waving his cowboy hat, struck me right away: this movie is out there. The craziness and relevance of it? 1HP was assigned to watch it as a part of her international relations class about 30 years after I first saw it.
  2. Fail- Safe (1964). This movie came out around the same time as Strangelove, but Fail-Safe was grittier, grimmer film. Henry Fonda, of course, makes an excellent president. A chilling film—I think that I went into shock when I heard the high whistle the first time that I saw it, and it still gives me a chill on seeing it again. Directed by Sidney Lumet.
  3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). What can you say about this, except Newman & Redford are so good in this, plus I like Katherine Ross, too. Redford's drollness is too good, and Newman provides the perfect foil.
  4. Dr. Zhivago. This is the only "epic" film on my list, but I have a certain sentimental rationale here. C & I went to see it in March 1970, on what I believe was our third date. She flattered me by asking questions about the personages and events of the Russian Revolution. What a great start for us! David Lean directed and Robert Bold (A Man for All Seasons) wrote the screenplay.
  5. The Graduate (1967). C & I went to this in Hamburg, Iowa (yes, you read that correctly) after our freshman year in college. The film arrived in Hamburg a bit later than in other venues, it seems; however, I was ripe for seeing it. I think that I've seen it more times than any other movie. As social satire and commentary goes, it's hard to beat. Dustin Hoffman is great. Again, the lovely Katherine Ross, plus other great character actors. Directed by Mike Nichols.
  6. Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). You may ask why Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi is not on the list, and I must say that it seems to me not quite as compelling as the first two. However, the difference may lie with the company I kept for the first two. For Star Wars, as it was first known, I took my young nephew Andy as an excuse to go; for The Empire Strikes Back, my nephews Eron & Jake came along with C & R to the movie theatre in the Quad Cities to see it. This company enhanced the viewing experience; however, who could not fall for the combination of Saturday matinee serial thriller with hero myth, romance, and an American tough-guy character?
  7. The Third Man (1949). A shout-out here to the Bijou Theatre at the University of Iowa. Before VHS and CDs, if you wanted to see an older movie, other than the potluck of television, you went to the Bijou. At was at the Bijou that I saw The Third Man for the first time, a great film directed by Carol Reed and starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Wells. The screenplay is by Graham Greene. The chase scene through the sewers of Vienna—great stuff. Also, a wonderful soundtrack based on the zither. (Very popular in the Amana Colonies!) A compelling story and a very well made film. If you like this, try the Greene-Reed collaboration in "A Fallen Idol".
  8. Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior (1980). While living in Champagne and before the birth of 1HP, Con and I took a chance on this movie, and we were blown away. The action, the colors, the staging, the story—this film seemed to us a masterpiece, and our first introduction to the great Akira Kurasowa.
  9. Sanjuro. I am embarrassed to say that while in college, and even after C and I discovered foreign flicks, I shied away from the Japanese films. I'd seen Rodan and Godzilla—no thanks. How foolish I was! Kurasowa's chopstick westerns are a real treat. I picked this film over the more well-known and highly acclaimed Seven Samurai and almost equally well-known Roshomon, both great films. I picked this one because is combines a whimsical mirth and the action film.
  10. North by Northwest (1959 ). First impressions can so deceive us. My earliest encounter with Hitchcock was to get up the courage to watch Psycho. Then The Birds on network TV, but I think that I had to wait to see this one. Gary Grant and Hitchcock (and James Mason!) and others make this a great film, I think my favorite among Hitchcock films (and he made many great ones).
  11. Death in Venice (1971). This film by Italian Luchino Visconti was gorgeous: gorgeous filming and gorgeous music (Mahler's 5th Symphony adagio movement). Dirk Bogarde plays the lead in this terrific adaptation of Thomas Mann's short novel.
  12. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003). I think that this will be the only documentary on my list, but we can almost view it as a tragedy. Errol Morris's documentary on Robert McNamara, including extensive interview footage of McNamara, displays to me an almost tragic sense of the man. He was not evil, he wanted to do well for his country, his family, and himself, yet Viet Nam, and all that it entailed, dragged him down. The film, I think, treats these issues fairly.
  13. Henry V (1989). This is my favorite Shakespeare on film. One reason, perhaps, is that I borrowed my nephews Eron and Jake to come with me to Omaha to watch it with me. (Thanks, fellas, as you may have thought me nuts to drag you out to such a movie.) Branagh's version was just right, with a great supporting cast, including Emma Thompson as the French princess. Their scene together at the end was just right. I'd seen Olivier's version before seeing Branagh's, and it's certainly wonderful, but Branagh's young king comes closer to getting it right. For fun, compare Olivier's and Branagh's St. Crispin Day speeches—so different!
  14. The Philadelphia Story (1940 ). It's a Cary Grant movie. It's a Kathryn Hepburn movie. It's a Jimmy Stewart movie. It's all three in one! Quick, witty, insightful. It's just a great movie. George Cukor directed.
  15. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley's People (1982). Okay, C already complained that these are not movies. True, they were made for TV; however, because of the quality of the script, acting, and production design, I have to treat them as films. These are to me what the Godfather films are to C. I'm not sure that I can quote as well as her from the script (a frightening ability that she possesses when she quotes Vito or Michael to me), but still, if you want more, I'll give you an earful. Alec Guinness is superb as Smiley. The supporting cast consists of great actors.
  16. The Shop Around the Corner (1940). This is a late discovery for C & I, but it's a gem. It stars Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in what served a prototype of the more recent You've Got Mail, which is good, but not as charming as the original. Also, great character actors support the two stars.
  17. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). The first of some trial movies, this is one that I can't imagine everyone wouldn't find a favorite. What more can be said about this film?
  18. Anatomy of a Murder (1959). This film is a grittier look at the world of criminal trials, and with Jimmy Stewart in the first chair, we get a pretty good account. The trial scenes are realistic enough to please me, but punchy enough for a general audience. One of the best trial movies.
  19. The Winslow Boy (1999). This is another late find by C & I, and it's a gem. Directed by David Mamet (whose other films are quite good) and based on an older play, Mamet brings to life a delicate situation involving a young man accused of theft in Edwardian Britain, a barrister, and the boy's sister. The sexual tension and repartee between the barrister played by Jeremy Northam and the sister played by Rebecca Pidgeon works very well. A delightful film.
  20. Twelve Angry Men (1957). Sidney Lumet puts Henry Fonda and eleven other outstanding actors in a small jury room, and he comes out with a truly compelling drama about a jury deciding a criminal case. Not having been privy to the inside of a jury deliberation, but having sought a lot of reports about what goes on, this strikes me as pretty realistic, as well as providing an outstanding drama. You have to really appreciate that the director and the actors could make such a confined space work in a movie.
  21. The Black Stallion (1979). Thank goodness for your own children and my nephews because they give you an excuse to see some great flicks. This one is beautiful. It's a boy and his horse movie, very well done. A fine film score as well.
  22. Into the West (1992). Our whole family saw this at the local mall. What a great blend of current Ireland, Irish mythology, and a nod the American Western. A fine soundtrack, too.
  23. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Early SF film, but really fine. It sticks with you. Michael Rennie and his robot friend lay down the smack to planet earth. Not to be missed, and don't forget the crucial words!
  24. The Matrix (1999). SF taken up a notch. Great actions and XF, plus a compelling and fascinating story.
  25. Love and Death (1975). Woody Allen had to get on my list, of course, but which one? While most would say Annie Hall, I have to go with this one as my sentimental favorite. From nods to Russian literature to slapstick, this has it all. "You must be Don Francisco's sister!"
  26. Ferris Beuller's Day Off (1986). This is a family favorite. Pure fun.
  27. The Shooting Party (1985). This is a little known film starring James Mason as the host at a hunting party at an English estate in 1913, before the outbreak of the Great War. It evokes England and Europe as it was on the eve of the cataclysm, with its class structure, petty concerns, and sense of foreboding. Mason's brief scene with John Gielgud is worth any price of admission. Also with Edward Fox and Gordon Jackson.
  28. Joyeux Noel (2005). This is one of the most recent films on the list. It's the story of the spontaneous truce on the front in WWI. It provides a glimpse into the horror of the Great War and the humanity that continued to exist despite it. Beautifully done.
  29. Paths of Glory (1957). Stanley Kubrick directs Kirk Douglas in this indictment of injustice set during the Great War. It's a war movie and a trial movie. Its trial scenes are among the best. It's a really compelling drama, which, like Joyeux Noel, finds some hope amongst all of the barbarity.
  30. The Awful Truth (1937). The screwball comedy with Gary Grant and Irene Dunn is a favorite in this genre, and it's a great genre. Irene Dunn is a treat to watch.
  31. The Thin Man (1934). This film, and the sequels, are great with William Powell and Myrna Loy—and of course, Asta! Pure enjoyment.
  32. Chinatown (1974). This is at the opposite of The Thin Man in the detective/mystery category. It's noir done in color, with a great script and compelling performances by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston.
  33. It's a Wonderful Life (1946). One can't get too much Jimmy Stewart, and we need to have some Capra-corn for our viewing menu. This is classic, classic.
  34. Harvey (1950). This play turned movie is great because of Elwood P. Dowd and his friend, the pooka, Harvey. If you want some laughs, this is a great choice. Of course, Elwood wouldn't be Elwood if Jimmy Stewart hadn't played him.
  35. Waking Ned Devine
    (1998). The best of Irish blarney with veteran actors Ian Bannen and David Kelly giving hilarious and touching performances.
  36. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
    (1980). This Ang Lee film goes where no martial arts film had gone before it: a sophisticated plot and characterization, beautiful cinematography, and—oh yes—great martial arts scenes. It was a "wow!" when C and Berna and I first saw it on a volleyball trip in the Chicago burbs, and it still is today.
  37. Hero
    (2002). I couldn't leave it at Crouching Tiger, and Hero, by director Zhang Yimou, is a great piece of work. Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi star in this beautiful martial arts epic. The Tan Dun soundtrack is quite fine, also.
  38. Last of the Mohicans (1992). Thinking of epics, and noting that I don't have any Westerns down, I do especially like this version of the great American novel. One wouldn't think a British actor (Daniel Day-Lewis) could pass for an American Indian, but he does. A well-done tale of the frontier.
I'm going to stop now, although I know that I'll think of more. Your comments invited. Thanks to all of those who went with me (most named herein)—many of my memories associate with whom I was with. And to borrow from Roger Ebert: see you at the movies!

John Gray Reviews Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist

John Gray puts his finger on many of the misgivings I had about Ridley's book, The Rational Optimist (upon which I commented earlier). Gray's review in the New Statesman makes an interesting point about distinguishing evolution, progress, and actual human history. In addition, Gray points out that Ridley was chairman of Northern Rock, a major failed British bank. One would think that he would not be such a Pollyanna after that experience. Ridley seems to be indifferent to the risks of climate change, while not exactly becoming a climate skeptic. "We'll get used to it" seems to be his answer. I fear Mother Nature, and I don't suggest that we're wise to poke her unnecessarily. While I recommend Ridley's book because he does have an interesting and well-argued perspective, in the end, I come down much closer to Gray's analysis.

Garry Wills: Dinner with Obama & Afghanistan

Garry Wills ends his silence about the dinner that he and other well known American historians held with President Obama near the beginning of Obama's term. Wills reports that about one-half of the historians present expressed their concern about Afghanistan as a trap for the administration. Wills certainly shares this concern. This venture, which seemed so right to begin with, now presents us with a major problem. The crucial question: when will we know (if ever) that we have accomplished our mission?