Call it Billy Wilder’s best; a cautionary tale of celebrity’s dangerous price; and Hollywood’s most daring, cynical and honest look at itself. “Sunset Blvd.” held such a controversial mirror up to the film industry that the original script had to be printed under the code name “A Can of Beans.” When MGM chief Louis B. Mayer saw the picture, he stormed out of the screening and screamed at Wilder, “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!” (A)
Perhaps Wilder had bitten the hand that fed him, but they were necessary bite marks. So often we see a glorified Hollywood with glamorous red carpets, deep wallets and adoring fans. Rarely do we get a glimpse into the price of fame, until that price has tragically been paid, marked by blood and the flashbulbs of a media circus.
What lies between the glory and the fall? What happens mentally and emotionally to movie stars once they pass their prime and are rejected by the business that created them? What do they do as they’re relegated to spending day after day in the wide-open loneliness of their huge Beverly Hills mansions? This is precisely what Wilder captures in “Sunset Blvd.,” the quintessential Hollywood movie and the quintessential anti-Hollywood movie, poignantly arriving at the tail-end of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Continue reading
In the entire history of movies, only a select few are so famous, so engrained in our culture, that we feel as if we’ve seen them, even if many of us haven’t. “King Kong,” directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, is one of those movies. Perhaps it’s because every one of us, somewhere or other, has seen a remake, like Peter Jackson’s in 2005, or heard a reference, like Jeff Goldblum’s comment as his car approaches the giant gate of “Jurassic Park” (1993): “What do they got in there, King Kong?”
There is no greater tribute to Kong than the fact that Spielberg paid homage as he rebuilt visual effects in “Jurassic Park” (1993) and Jackson chose it to follow his groundbreaking CGI in “The Lord of the Rings” (2001-2003). But “Kong” is more than just the origin of effects; it’s a cultural staple and legend of Hollywood; the godfather of blockbusters; the birthplace of movie scores; and the standard bearer of adventure, fantasy, horror and romance. Remove it, and movies veer in a vastly different direction.
“I think as a film, ["Kong"] inspired more people to become filmmakers than any other film ever made,” said Peter Jackson, no doubt speaking for himself. “I’m absolutely certain of that fact.” In this light, one can view “Kong” in one of two ways. It opened Pandora’s box to a special effects mindset of years of movie magic, but which, left in the wrong hands, has threatened to kill it. Continue reading
“I’ve had this feeling ever since I’ve graduated, this kind of compulsion that I have to be rude all the time, you know what I mean? It’s like I’ve been playing some kind of game but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people.”
The power of “The Graduate” can be summed up in two images. The first is Benjamin lying in the pool, post-graduation, trying to decide what to do in life. We’ve all been there, that coming-of-age feeling of a “quarter-life crisis,” uncertain about our future.
The second is the famous shot under Mrs. Robinson’s leg. In one shot, “The Graduate” opened Hollywood’s bedroom door, planting the seeds for phrases like “MILF” and “cougar” and paving the way for so many sex comedies to come, from “American Pie” to “Desperate Housewives.” If you think such material shocks audiences today, imagine the impact in 1967.
Together, this combo of coming-of-age politics and groundbreaking sexual revolution changed the course of movie — and American — history. “The Graduate” taught studio heads that great success could be had by making hipper films targeting younger audiences, marking a demarcation point from the “sword and sandal” epics of the ’50s and early ’60s. Director Mike Nichols played upon the generation gap, flattering youth by depicting adults as materialistic hypocrites, while leading Hollywood down a more socially-relevant path. Continue reading
Watch most any Warner Bros. movie, from “Blazing Saddles” (1974) to “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), and you’ll see a golden “WB” logo over nostalgic piano notes. These are the notes of “As Time Goes By,” the recurring theme from the film that has made Warner Bros. and all of Hollywood the most proud after 70 years.
“Casablanca” not only won Best Picture upon release, it remains the undisputed champion of Hollywood’s Golden Age and, according to film critic Leonard Maltin, “The best Hollywood movie of all time.” What a magnificent feat for a film that was just one of dozens cranked out by Warner Bros. in 1942, and one of three shot by Warner director Michael Curtiz that year.
Amidst the height of this studio assembly line, somehow all the stars aligned – a powerful cast, an “exotic” soundstage locale, one of the great love songs in music history, the single greatest script ever written, and current-events subject matter pitting romance against the Nazi attempt to take over the world. Continue reading
“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” Few lines sum up a movie better than this confession by Jessica Rabbit in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Not that the film is drawn poorly. Quite the contrary. The “bad” she speaks of is a delicious naughtiness, a cleverness that emanates from every pore of this wholly original film.
Its presentation may be safe for viewers of all ages, but the idea of combining live action with animation for an entire feature length film was just as dangerous as Jessica’s curves. The technique dates all the way back to the 1920s when it was popularized by Walt Disney’s “Alice” cartoons. Disney revisited it in films like “Song of the South” (1946), “Mary Poppins” (1964) and, after Walt’s death, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971). Aside from Disney, you may also remember a real-life boy befriending an animated dragon in the children’s favorite “Pete’s Dragon” (1977) and Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry (of Tom and Jerry) in the Oscar-winning “Anchors Aweigh” (1945). But it was Robert Zemeckis and company who redefined the idea with “Roger Rabbit.” Not only did they sustain the technique for the entire feature length, they also designed increasingly complex ways of showcasing their mastery of it, all the while supported by a solid story and noir style that amounts to more than just gimmick. Continue reading
If you’re a fan of film noir, you should get down on your knees and thank God every day for 1944. The year produced three staples of this most atmospheric of film styles — Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” from a novel by James M. Cain, Edward Dmytryk’s “Murder, My Sweet (Farewell My Lovely)” from a novel by Raymond Chandler, and, of course, Otto Preminger’s haunting whodunit “Laura,” from a novel by Vera Caspary. Of the three, “Double Indemnity” clearly takes the title of “Best Noir of ‘44.” But Preminger’s “Laura” at least gives it a run for its murder-mystery money.
Voted the No. 4 Greatest Mystery of All Time by the AFI, “Laura” features all the classic elements of both the mystery genre and the noir style: shadows, mirrors, a murder investigation, a string of suspects insisting they’re innocence, competing hearts, muddled morality, the looming threat of a femme fatale and a smoking detective who lives by the motto: “Dames are always pulling a switch on you.” Continue reading
Their careers began over a century ago, as a family vaudeville act in New York. Yet the very mention of the phrase “Marx Brothers” has become cultural shorthand for comic genius and a reminder that good comedy never stales. Yes, they were all actual brothers, and yes, there were as many as five: Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Gummo, though the lattermost left the act before the group started making films in 1926.
In all, the siblings made 16 pictures together through 1957, and as the wisecracking standout, Groucho enjoyed a solo career that stretched into the ’60s. But of all the films they made, none was more influential or more hilarious than their 1933 flop “Duck Soup,” their last at Paramount, and last with Zeppo, a film grossly under-appreciated in its day, but quite simply one of the finest comedies ever made. Continue reading
I was 20 when I fell for Elizabeth Taylor. It was during one of my first internships at The Baltimore Sun, when we heard the actress was on her death bed. Film critic Michael Sragow and multimedia editor Jo Parker had me compile a tribute video, filled with the cheesy transitions of a first-time editor. Thus my first explorations of classic Hollywood came with my first explorations of Taylor. I was a sucker for those breathless lines and purple eyes, and I quickly realized there was so much more to Taylor than the diamonds and celebrity home-wrecking I’d heard about.
She wound up living for six more years, and it became a running joke at The Sun that my montage was still sitting on the shelf. By the time it finally ran in 2011, giving her “A Place in the (Baltimore) Sun,” I had hoped the day would never come. I had grown totally endeared to her work, such that her passing recalled her teary-eyed farewell to Monty Clift: “It seems like we always spend the best part of our time, just saying goodbye.” Continue reading
In trying to pin down a masterwork by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, how does one choose between the crude originality of Boogie Nights (1997), the high-concept complexity of Magnolia (1999) or the lyrical power of There Will Be Blood? The answer: Daniel Day-Lewis.
All three deserve to go down as great films, but There Will Be Blood seems even greater, like the collision of two of modern cinema’s brightest forces, Anderson and Day-Lewis, the impact of which has left us with a sprawling masterpiece. The film is Anderson’s best attempt at social commentary, expanding upon his explorations of modern suburban Los Angeles in Boogie Nights and Magnolia to explore California’s frontier origins and what those roots say about American ideals.
The film is mind-blowingly unique. Time called it “one of the most wholly original American movies ever made.” And once you’ve taken the time to truly digest what you’ve just seen, there’s only one logical conclusion: that Anderson is one of the best, if not the best, young filmmaker out there today. Continue reading
When “The Wild Bunch” arrived in 1969, even the most respected critics were torn over whether Sam Peckinpah had created a masterpiece or an abomination. I fondly recall a story Baltimore Sun critic Michael Sragow told me about the summer of ’69, when he saw “The Wild Bunch” six times in two weeks and wrote a piece to his teacher insisting it was the greatest film ever made. Impressed, the teacher helped Sragow get into NYU film school and become the first regular movie critic for Rolling Stone magazine. Thirty six years later, I discovered the film at Sragow’s behest in 2005, and my affection for it has only grown with multiple viewings.
On the one hand, I envy Sragow and others’ ability to experience “The Wild Bunch” in its full shocking debut, before the world became desensitized to violence. On the other hand, it’s been a privilege to bypass years of controversy over the film’s merits, and view it with the certainty that what I’m witnessing is a masterpiece. How lucky I am not to have seen the Oscar snubbing in 1969. Continue reading
The tale of “Gone With the Wind” starts and ends with one man, producer David O. Selznick. From the very start, he set the highest of standards — to create the biggest, most expensive, most glamorous Hollywood production that history had ever seen. A toxic mixture of genius, megalomaniac, showman and perfectionist, Selznick followed the now controversial advice of his father, a jeweler who had failed at the movie business: “Live beyond your means. It gives you confidence.”
It paid off. Historians estimate that more people have seen “Gone With the Wind” than any other movie in history. That is not to say only living people, but overall people throughout the course of history. “‘Gone With the Wind’ is still the reigning champion as far as all-time most popular movie,” said box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, who estimates the film has sold 200 million tickets throughout history. “In other words, there have been more butts in movies seats for that movie than any other film in history.” Continue reading
In the 2002 Sight & Sound critics poll, David Thomson voted Blue Velvet not just his favorite movie of the ’80s, but his favorite film of all time. Thomson sang the highest of praises, saying, “It would be as hard to advance on Blue Velvet as it must have been to work after Citizen Kane.” (A) That sentiment was echoed by Peter Travers, who called Blue Velvet a “perverse masterwork” and ranked it #9 in Rolling Stone‘s 100 Maverick Movies.
Why, then, is there a backlash from mainstream viewers, who gave higher box office receipts to 76 other movies that year? Why does the public rate it a 7.8 on IMDB? Why did Roger Ebert give it just one star in 1986? And why does it still only get two stars on my Comcast cable box, compared to the 92% rating on rottentomatoes?
The answer: Blue Velvet is not only odd, but it goes for something that transcends cinema. As a first-time viewer, you share in the main character’s uncomfortable departure from your safe movie-going existence. You go along with it, because you’re intrigued, but by the time the velvet curtain drops, you aren’t sure what to make of it. Wasn’t half the movie campy, corny, even poorly written? And how does that compute with the other half, which is the exact opposite — a brutally real underworld? Finally, you contemplate it long enough and you realize the corniness and brutality are both there for a reason: two contrasting views on the world around us, presented in two contrasting styles by a director daring enough to challenge us and to comment on the film medium itself. Continue reading
“The way our great director Bob Zemeckis would describe it,” said Gary Sinise, “sometimes we thought we were making Citizen Kane and other times we thought Roger Rabbit.” Is Forrest Gump a profound commentary like Kane, or an effects-driven romp like Roger Rabbit? Such a broad spectrum makes for a most fascinating discussion about the critics and the mainstream.
While the public made Gump the highest grossing movie of 1994 and votes it an 8.7 on IMDB today, the experts remain splintered. They simultaneously shower it with Oscars (six including Best Picture) and snub it entirely at Cannes, Venice and Berlin. They vote it into the AFI Top 100, but give it zero votes on the Sight & Sound critics poll. Most of all, they give it mixed reviews with a 72% on rottentomatoes, some echoing Pauline Kael — “I hated it thoroughly” — and others echoing Roger Ebert – “Forrest Gump is not only a great and magical entertainment, but the more you think about it, the more it reveals itself as actually sort of profound.” Continue reading
There may be no greater testament to The Wizard of Oz than the vast demographics it covers, from theater types who adore Broadway’s Wicked to stoners who watch the film in sync with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. After nearly 75 years, the film has transformed itself from mild box office showing to must-see annual TV event to timeless pop culture legend. It’s hard to think that the movie started as just that — a movie.
It’s almost impossible to look objectively at a film that’s so burned into our collective conscious that every song seems our own, every word feels part of our vocabulary and every touch appears as if fate intended it to be there. The film has become so mythical that many fans can no longer separate fact from fiction. Didn’t a Munchkin hang himself on screen? Aren’t there hidden metaphors for government policies? Wasn’t there some on-screen accident? Some off-screen illness? Some of these myths have been busted; others embraced. But one thing is for certain — a film that spawns so many legends must indeed be a legend itself. Continue reading
For a film that’s become such a fixture in our homes each holiday season, it’s amazing how much Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life still has the ability to shock viewers with the same reaction: “I forgot how dark it is. How serious. How little it actually focuses on Christmas.” Indeed, Capra uses the holidays as a mere framing device for an in-depth character study into one man’s life of disappointment — a kind of film noir with a second chance, a human tragedy with revisionist fantasies.
“Happiness here was pursued by the hounds of living hell; the American Dream was so close to the nightmare,” critic David Thomson writes. “The film that had failed in 1947 had become a token of uplifting fellowship, yet it was a film noir full of regret, self-pity and the temptation of suicide. How could so many people convince themselves that it was cheery?” Continue reading
Considering their spots atop just about every best list in existence, the idea that “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II” are the greatest films ever made may seem more like a sacred truth than something still up for debate. To this day, they remain the only original and sequel to both win the Oscar for Best Picture. And yet, I have still heard an unfortunate few say they don’t get the hype. Too long. Too slow. Too depressing. If you fall into this category, I beg you to reconsider. If you like movies, and their potential to explain the world around us, I promise this is a bandwagon worth joining.
How’s this for an offer you can’t refuse: my promise that by the end of this review, if you truly take the time to read the litany of Coppola’s genius directing techniques and powerful themes, you will finally understand why these movies are so famous, so beloved and so revered. As the late Sidney Lumet said, “They are as close to perfect movies as I think exists.” Continue reading
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Tagged al pacino, corleone, diane keaton, francis ford coppola, gordon willis, james caan, lee strasberg, mario puzo, marlon brando, nino rota, robert deniro, robert duvall, talia shire, the godfather, the godfather part II
Bette Davis was Hollywood royalty, so respected that she was named the very first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was also so independent that she resigned when the Academy wouldn’t let her open the 1942 Oscars to the public and donate the proceeds to British war relief. After her resignation, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck said she would never work in Hollywood again. But there he was, eight years later, signing her to play the lead role of Margo Channing in All About Eve. It was a risky project, untouched for years by studios who were uneasy about its unflattering presentation of showbiz as a world of lying, opportunistic, backstabbing scum. No business like it, indeed.
The film was fittingly released the same year as Sunset Blvd., where Billy Wilder cast just as cynical a lens on the film industry. Thus 1950 will forever stand as the year that show business was its most self-reflexive and its most self-critical. While Sunset Blvd. usually ranks slightly higher on best lists today, it was All About Eve that dominated in 1950, garnering a record 14 Academy Award nominations (tied with Titanic for the most in history) and winning six, including Best Picture (Zanuck), Best Director (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Best Screenplay (Mankiewicz) and Best Actor (George Sanders). Continue reading
How brilliant a writer is Charlie Kaufman? Brilliant enough to earn three Oscar nominations and contribute three scripts to the Writers Guilds’ 101 Greatest Screenplays of All-Time — all in a span of six years. From 1999-2004, Kaufman single-handedly gave us some of the most imaginative screenplays in the history of movies, from Being John Malkovich (1999), about a puppeteer finding a hidden doorway into the head of actor John Malkovich, to Adaptation. (2002), about twin-brother screenwriters.
Yet as good as those scripts are — and they are phenomenal — Kaufman’s most inventive and touching work has to be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film about ex-lovers who undergo a procedure to erase eachother from their respective memories. If only Jimmy Stewart had that luxury in Vertigo. And yet, Eternal Sunshine is so much more than its original, bittersweet premise. Kaufman layers his gimmick with deep characterization, beautiful themes and wondrous science fiction. Of the three aformentioned scripts to land on the WGA list, Eternal Sunshine ranks the highest at #24, and while the other two did not win Kaufman Oscars, Eternal Sunshine finally did the trick. Continue reading
To argue the merits of Rocky as a popular phenomenon seems almost unnecessary, and any plot summary is merely a formality. Everyone and his mother knows the story of Philadelphia down-and-outer Rocky Balboa and his miracle long-shot at boxing’s heavyweight crown. Few films can claim to have been seen, and beloved, by so many. Even those who haven’t seen the film feel as if they have, and everyone, fans and non-fans alike, can instantly call to mind the film’s characters, quotes, music and images. It’s a part of the American experience, an inspiration to millions and the blueprint for so many sports movies to follow.
Unfortunately, the film has become so diluted by pop culture references and endless sequels that watching it today almost feels like an exercise in self-parody. It’s so easy to forget that Rocky, the original, is actually a solid film, however calculated. It’s the source of all our subconscious training montages, an accessible commentary on the working class, the romanticized epitome of the American Dream, a record setter at the box office, the Best Picture of 1976, one of the finest love stories in movie history and the greatest underdog story ever told. Continue reading
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Tagged adrian, apollo creed, balboa, burgess meredith, burt young, carl weathers, italian stallion, john g. avildsen, mickey, philadelphia, rocky, sylvester stallone, talia shire
“When I first saw The Searchers it was a terrific cowboy and Indian picture,” said Steven Spielberg. “But as I got older and saw The Searchers numerous times, I realized that it had much deeper meanings than that.”
I couldn’t agree more. For me, The Searchers was my “epiphany movie,” where the veil of “normal” movie-watching was lifted to reveal another way of “seeing.” I came to realize why director John Ford is so respected among filmmakers. Why in 2002, MovieMaker Magazine called him one of the Top 5 Most Influential Directors of All Time. Why Entertainment Weekly voted him the #3 greatest of all time. And why Orson Welles always maintained that his Top 3 favorite directors were “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”
What better way for average folks to have their own film theory awakening than a deceptively simple John Wayne western, the type of “Cowboy and Indian” flick your grandfather watched many a Saturday, not knowing that an entirely different language — the language of cinema — was masterfully at work? Continue reading
By the late ’40s, Alfred Hitchcock had made roughly 40 films, and like many great artists, he had become restless in his work. Yearning to stretch the boundaries of a medium he had so clearly mastered, he began what some would call his “experimental phase,” a creative flourish that produced Rope (1948), a film shot in ten long “single takes” to create the illusion of one continuous shot; Dial M for Murder (1954), which dabbled in a 3D technology that allowed Grace Kelly to lift a pair of scissors off the screen; even The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955), where he inserted a Doris Day musical number.
The greatest in this experimental period was, of course, Rear Window. Here, Hitchcock concocted his most original, most challenging concept yet: to create an entire film from one vantage point, the rear window of a Greenwich Village apartment, and in turn, symbolize the very movie-watching experience and director-viewer relationship that made him a legend. Continue reading
There’s a reason Alfred Hitchcock is history’s most respected director among both the critics and the public. It’s because his career epitomizes the essence of this site. The rotund man nimbly walked the tightrope between the academic and the mainstream better than anyone — while so many others looked down and got the spins. He was both a showman and a visionary, making films that celebrate the nail-biting entertainment we love about the movies, yet ones that, upon closer inspection, reveal a deeper understanding of how cinesthetic techniques work wonders on the subconscious. That’s the mark of a true genius.
Now that the dust has settled from all the masterworks — from Psycho to The Birds, Rear Window to Notorious — Hitchcock’s cream has finally risen to the top. When Universal released its “Hitchcock Masterpiece DVD Collection,” Vertigo was the only film to feature the word “Masterpiece” on the cover. When the AFI updated its Top 100 list in 2007, Vertigo leaped 52 spots ahead to No. 9. And when Sight & Sound conducted its latest international critics poll in 2012, Vertigo finally ended Citizen Kane’s 50-year reign as the greatest film of all time. Continue reading
“['Citizen Kane'] may be more fun than any other great movie,” wrote Pauline Kael, godmother of all film critics. I have a hunch, however, that your average viewer will agree more with Peter Griffin of “Family Guy:” “It’s a sled. There, I just saved you two long, boobless hours.” Indeed, so many in the mainstream reflect Joey and Rachel in “Friends:” “Have you ever tried to sit through ‘Citizen Kane?’” “I know. It’s really boring, but it’s like a big deal.”
Trust me. “Citizen Kane” is the single most important film for you to understand, because it carries the very DNA required of every film critic, the blueprint for any serious filmmaker and the standard by which scholars judge the “great movies.” Understand this one, and you’ll have unlocked the most challenging end of the film spectrum. You’ll be well on your way to understanding the rest of the listology kings, the art masterpieces and the critical favorites that have mystified you for so long. Continue reading
Only a select few films have been called “the most beloved of all time.” Annual TV airings earned the title for “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), while box office receipts have made strong cases for “Gone With the Wind” (1939), “The Godfather” (1972) and “Star Wars” (1977). But in the internet age, a new generation of Millenials holds up a new contender: “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Only in today’s culture of rapid film consumption and instant web response could a film like “Shawshank” rise the ranks of reverence to do battle with the listology kings of academic glory. This is why I’m choosing to launch The Film Spectrum with “Shawshank” alongside “Citizen Kane.” In many ways, “Shawshank” has become the “Citizen Kane” of IMDb, with more than half a million viewers flocking to the site to rank the film No. 1. Continue reading