Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

John Huston, 1948, bw (8.6*)
A classic study of greed and morality, a tale which earned director Huston Oscars for directing and screenplay (and he directed his father Walter to another, the only one to direct a parent to an Oscar). Three men of dubious ethics get together out west and decide to go to Mexico to discover gold. Grizzled prospecter Walter Huston, who won a supporting actor Oscar, shows tinhorns Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt both the ropes and what gold dust looks like. Three Oscars
Mexican actor Alphonso Bedoya delivers the greatest line in movie history:
Quote: Badges? Badges? We don got to show you no stinkin badges!


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Adam's Rib

George Cukor, 1949, bw (8.8*)
Classic b&w comedy doesn't get any better, as Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn play married lawyers who end up on opposite sides in a courtroom when a jealous wife, a hilarious Judy Holliday, shoots philandering hubby Tom Ewell, but not fatally. Tracy prosecutes her for attempted murder, while Hepburn defends the wife, perhaps to antagonize and match wits with Tracy. This was one of the first women's lib films that dealt with (in)equality of the sexes, especially in a court of law. Watch for a hilarous sequence involving rival suitor David Wayne's song about Kate, "Farewell Amanda", which becomes a big radio hit.Tracy also has one of his classic scenes using his acting skills to max comedic effect. Terrific screenplay, Oscar-nominated, from husband-and-wife Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon.


Friday, November 28, 2008


Alan J. Pakula, 1971 (8.2*)
Klute works because of one reason: the incredible performance of Jane Fonda, one of her two Oscar winning roles (Coming Home is the other). Here she plays a call girl who has possibly become the target of a stalker with a more devilish purpose than voyeurism, he's perhaps even a murderer. The suspense works because we don't really know for sure, we're as confused as Fonda's character Bree. Donald Sutherland plays a sympathetic detective, investigating a disappearance, who is slowly sucked into Bree's life as well as his client's. Fonda's sessions with her psychiatrist are likely what garnered her the Oscar, for she takes this film beyond an ordinary psycho crime drama.

Note: Eight actresses have won Oscars playing prostitutes (including Kim Basinger, Mira Sorvino, Shirley Jones), see the list at Worlds Best Films


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Repo Man

Alex Cox, 1984 (7.8*)
This has to be one of the more unique cult comedies, basically anything goes in this. It constantly surprises you, you'll find yourself laughing at bizarre lines (see quote), and after it's over I'm sure the most common remark has to be "What the H was that?". Emilio Estevez gets a job doing vehicle repossessions. His parents are religous fanatics who have given all their money to a televangelist, and who eat generic food from cans marked "Food". He is schooled in his new career by a trigger-happy Harry Dean Stanton, whose basic motto is "shoot them before they can shoot you". The ongoing plot surrounds a moving car which has something very powerful in the trunk - those who take a look to see what wish they hadn't, which makes a nice metaphor for mankind and science in general, the old Pandora's Box thing. Tarantino had to have seen this before making Pulp Fiction, they both have the undercurrent of anarchy.
Quote: Let's go do a crime! Let's order sushi then NOT pay!


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Man Who Would Be King

John Huston, 1975 (8.4*)
This grand adventure was based on a Rudyard Kipling story, which was based on the life of a soldier who left India for riches in Afghanistan before westerners had been there, in the mid 1800's. Two British soldier buddies, perfectly played by Sean Connery and Michael Caine, decide to seek gold by finding an unexplored country they can exploit, so they desert the army in India and head into the Himilayas on foot. Michael Caine's wife plays the romantic interest for Connery, who has the title role, the one would aspires to the crown. The entire story is related as a flashback to Kipling himself, played by Christopher Plummer.This is adventure like it used to be in the movies.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ned Kelly

Gregor Jordan, 2004 (7.3*)
This rampaging Australian western tells the story of Irish livestock theif Ned Kelly, well played by Heath Ledger in one of his best roles, and his gang of four, two friends, one played by Orlando Bloom. A small misunderstanding with a British policeman led to a major war between the gang and British authorities, making Ned a folk hero, while the Irish farmers refuse to help in spite of a large bounty.Naomi Watts has a small role as romantic interest for Ned. Based on a true story from the late 1800's.


Monday, November 24, 2008

The Big Country

William Wyler, 1958, 3 hours (7.6*)
The stars of this film are nearly overwhelmed by the panaromic scenery and symphonic music score, so this makes a perfect 70mm film for remastered dvd. Gregory Peck plays a former ship's captain coming to the prairie to marry the daugher (Carroll Baker) of a ranch owner, played by Charles Bickford, who's mired in water rights feud with his "trailer trash" neighbors, the Hennesseys, led by Burl Ives, in an Oscar winning supporting role. His evil son is perfectlly played by Chuck Conners (who knew?), and even Charlton Heston takes a supporting role as Bickfords ranch foreman. Schoolteacher Jean Simmons has inherited the key ranch in the area, which has the water everyone else needs to keep their cattle alive during droughts. Wyler, one of the best ever (Ben-Hur, Best Years of Our Lives, Little Foxes) makes long, thoughtful films, so don't expect lots of action and gunfighting, this is a more intellectual, leisurely paced, and personal film, and it's terrific in widescreen. One Oscar


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Wall Street

Oliver Stone, 1987 (8.5*)
This perfectly cynical look at corporate culture in our wealth-hungry economic system gives us the perfectly anti-heroic capitalist in Gordon Gekko, a role with earned Michael Douglas a Best Acting Oscar. An arbitrageur / corporate raider takes a young Charlie Sheen under his wing, and soon they are attempting to take over and dismantle the aerospace company where Sheen's dad Martin Sheen works. Somehow Stone makes corporate takeover and stock manipulation a tense nail-biter with some substance. This was loosely based on the true story of Ivan Boesky, who was indicted in the 80's for violating securities laws, and unfortunately this is an all too accurate portrayal of the financial system of the U.S. This film, along with Boiler Room and Rogue Trader, are all musts for stock market participants.
Quote: Greed is good. (Gekko, giving a speech)


Boiler Room

Ben Younger, 2000 (7.7*)
Ranking right up there with Wall Street, this is another expose of stock market scams and capitalist ripoffs commonly employed. The term refers to a stock brokerage that pressures its clients to buy stocks they want to push, some of which don't even represent real companies. Some are nothing more than signs stuck on doors of empty warehouses. We are reminded of the electronic sales company Crazy Eddie's, which had government auditors counting empty boxes as valid inventory when it went public as a 'high flying stock'.
Giovanni Ribisi stars with some buddies who are new to the industry, and soon find that the stock market isn't exactly what they thought it was. Rather than real investment deals like the big boys, they are constantly pressured to sell hot air to naive investors who don't have a lot to lose, and certainly no extra capital. Not big budget like Wall Street, this small indie film is still a must for stock traders.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Thin Man

W.S. Van Dyke, 1934, bw (8.0*)
This was the first in a series of highly popular crime comedies featuring Nick and Nora Charles, perfectly played, cool and low key, by William Powell and Myrna Loy, with Nick a former detective who married 'idle rich' aristocrat Nora - he now solves crimes just for pleasure, basically out of boredom, and it also gives him something to do between martinis, which flow like water. This began a six-film series of tongue-in-cheek detective stories, usually involving murders among the wealthy or organized crime underworld (which they often frequent). They actually seem to spoof film noir, which hadn't come along yet (40s).

The funniest scenes are those involving Nora meeting ex-cons that Nick 'sent up the river' during his career, and learning how to speak the criminal vernacular, like 'sleeping with the fishes'. They also keep telling Nick how hot his new girlfriend is, and even show up en masse with kids for Nick and Nora's kid's first birthday. This series also has a terrific acting terrier named Asta, probably the most popular film dog in history (see photo). Asta's highlights include playing chase with evidence, and running off a neighbor dog who dug into his mate's pen while he was gone, giving her one black dog in a white litter!

Ironically, the title refers not to detective Charles ("Nick the dick"?) but to a murder suspect in the first film, yet the producers decided to keep the title of the original Dashiell Hammett novel for all future films. Jimmy Stewart was a suspect in the second film, After the Thin Man, so he was the second thin man! To be accurate, the series should have been "The Drinking Detective".
Sequels in order are After the Thin Man, Another Thin Man, Shadow of the the Thin Man, Thin Man Goes Home, Song of the Thin Man.


Friday, November 21, 2008

The Harmonists

Joseph Vilmsmaier, 1997, Germany (7.7*)
This interesting film tells the true story of a 30's vocal group called the Comedian Harmonists, very popular in Germany just before the Nazis come to power. The leader the group is inspired by American music, especially jazz, and creates complex vocal arrangements of popular songs. A kind of "Bavarian Transfer"? There's some great music here, as well as an attempt to show the creative process at work. Of course, eventually everything changes in Germany, and this story was almost forgotten in history. If you like 30's musicals, check this out.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Searching for Bobby Fisher

Steve Zallian, 1993 (8.5*)
Engrossing story of a kid, Josh Waitzkin, played by Max Pomeranc, who loves to play chess, and who is enthralled by playing speed chess in a local park, where his talent is spotted and he is befriended by Larry Fishburne, who tutors him and provides comraderie. His father, in another excellent performance by Joseph Mantegna, wants to help his son achieve his goals, and hires conservative chess master F. Murray Abraham to take his son to the next level, serious tournament competition. The film's title alludes to U.S. chess sensation (and eccentric) Bobby Fisher, who broke the Russian's hold on the world chess championship in the late 60's (and then became a recluse), but has yet to see a successor emerge from the U.S. This is an excellent story about learning about something you love and showing determination toward your goals, even if you're only 7 years old. Based on a book by Josh's father Fred Waitzkin.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mister Roberts

John Ford, 1955 (8.8*)
Western directing legend Ford breaks the mold in perhaps his most accessible film, with a terrific cast and a perfect comedy play that required little transformation to become a comedy classic film. James Cagney is the skipper of a tiny naval vessal used for training, while the real heroes are off killing our WW2 enemies, so he takes his frustrations out on his crew. Henry Fonda is perfect as Cagney's foil, Mister Roberts, second-in-command, who has the crew's respect and affection as they all hate the skipper. He has the perfect well-mannered demeanor with Cagney, which further drives him batty. William Powell, in his last film role, is the ship's doctor, and a young Jack Lemmon won a supporting actor Oscar as a junior officer, always stymied by, and fearful of Cagney and with whom he's always at silent war.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Five Easy Pieces

Bob Rafelson, 1970 (8.7*)
This superb and incisive drama put Jack Nicholson on the map as a serious actor to be reckoned with, garnering him his first Best Actor nomination. Director Bob Rafelson came out of nowhere with this terrific script of a washed-up classical pianist now struggling as a blue collar oilfield worker. His 'trailer trash' girlfriend, Karen Black in a career-defining role as the aptly named Rayette DePesto, epitomizes the phrase honky tonk, and serves as a constant reminder that he's now in a culturally-deprived world of beer, country music, and bowling. The heart of the film is a freedom-inspired road trip to his past, where Nicholson faces both relatives and an unfulfilled life. The title refers not to loose women (of which there are some, including a young and randy Sally Struthers, also a very sexy Susan Anspach, a guest at his father's house) but to some easy to play classical piano compositions. Adult drama at its best.
Quote: I think I'll go to Alaska, there's not so much crap there yet.
Quote2: Yes, I want you to hold the chicken - hold it between your knees.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Catch Me If You Can

Steven Spielberg, 2002 (8.6*)
This amazing true story is also a very entertaining combination of comedy and drama. The story is about one of the most amazing and elusive con artists in our history, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who was able to pose as an airline pilot (not to fly but to get free travel in the cockpits of other airlines), head of the emergency room of an Atlanta hospital, and a master forger of all types of documents. Without giving any spoilers, the story involves the various cons used while Tom Hanks and the FBI gradually gathers a huge list of crimes while trying to identify and find him.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

All the President's Men

Alan J. Pakula, 1972 (9*)
Based on the true story of Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who broke the story of Nixon's illegal directives, Watergate "Plumbers", and usurping of the Constitution, and which eventually led to his resignation to avoid impeachment. This is a tightly plotted film put together like a mystery-thriller, and stars an excellent cast, led by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, supported by Jason Robards as the Post editor Benjamin Bradley, who gave them license to dig into and run the story. Based on the Pulitzer-winning book, this is docudrama at its best, even knowing the eventual outcome doesn't spoil the suspense.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My Favorite Wife

Garson Kanin, 1938, bw (8.2*)
One of the best of the thirties screwball comedies, this is also the archetype for all the missing spouse stories later made. On the very day that Cary Grant has missing wife Irene Dunne declared dead seven years after a boat disaster in Southeast Asia, and getting married for the second time (on the same day), his wife re-appears, having been rescued from an island by a passing ship. As the sticky plot progresses, we find that she spent those years not alone but with the studly and athletic Randolph Scott, who even lives at an athletic resort. What follows is a very funny game of jealousy and psychology, as Dunne attempts to get her husband and family back.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Ivan's Childhood

Andrei Tarkovsky, Russia, 1962, bw (8.8*)
Russian cinema emerged after Stalin when both restrictions were relaxed and the state doubled the number of movies funded to over 100 per year by the early sixties. Andrei Tarkovsky, son of a poet, was one of the new directors to emerge, and directed some well known films, including Andrei Rublev, Solaris, and Ivan's Childhood, his first big film, actually a stalled project he took over, turning it into a personal statement of his own. Tarkovsky is poetic and lyrical, and mixes dream and fantasy imagery with harsh reality, in this case a bleak war-torn Russian landscape during World War Two. Ivan's reality is scouting the invading German troops for the Russians, often involving wading through swampy forests, and as he's driven by vengance, he knows no other purpose in his young life. We also see Ivan's dreams or perhaps pre-war memories, playing on a beach with other kids, running happily through the surf, riding in a truck full of apples.

This is a powerful anti-war statement, beautifully shot in a misty, expressionistic black and white (the cinematographer was Yusov), deservedly put Tarkovsky on the map. Rublev is also worth seeing, though too long at over three hours, but I found Solaris nearly unwatchable, simply a boring attempt at post-2001 science fiction.

Note: Tarkovsky gets a lot of attention and critical acclaim for his minimalist and abstract films, such as Solaris and The Sacrifice, yet this remains my favorite of his. Of the more experimental films, try The Mirror, it has for more to offer than the 'S' films, which I find less rewarding and slower than watching paint dry.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

American Gangster

Ridley Scott, 2007 (7.6*)
American Gangster is an ambitious organized crime 'epic' based on a true story. Denzel Washington, in a non-demanding role, stars as a man who has moved far up from his roots in North Carolina to become a major wholesale drug dealer in the New York area. The film is very professional and well put together, but is perhaps a little too long, and lacks the passion or intensity of Goodfellas, or even other Ridley Scott films like Aliens and Thelma & Louise. Veteran actress Ruby Dee (Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee) stands out as Denzel's mother, Russell Crowe is adequate but generally wasted as a narcotics detective. Still a worthy entry into the organized crime genre.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Jeremiah Johnson

Sydney Pollack, 1972 (8.1*)
Just a simple story about "a man called Jeremiah Johnson who wanted to be a mountain man". He was told to "go west of the sunset, turn left at the Rockies", and from sparkling dialogue like this, we thankfully have a quiet film about a pioneer played by Robert Redford who attempts to survive alone in the western wilderness. This is a very well-made and unique western, definitely not the standard good vs evil plot; it's more about survival, cooperation, coexistence, independence. The film introduced Redford to the Wasatch Mountains of Utah (not far from Salt Lake City), where he later built Sundance after falling in love with the incredible scenery there. This is the kind of western that you can watch over and over, and it even casts Native Americans in a positive light. Sydney Pollack would later win a directing Oscar for Out of Africa, also with Redford.
Quote: I know who you are - I've been hearing you for 20 days and smelling you for three!


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Captains Courageous

Victor Fleming, 1937, bw (8.1*)
Excellent early film adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling novel of a rich brat who falls overboard on an ocean liner headed for England, and is rescued by fisherman Spencer Tracy (who won an Oscar for Best Actor in spite of his awful Portuguese accent that Tracy later admitted was a Yiddish one he used on the stage). Child acting sensation and box office king Freddie Bartholomew is excellent as the spoiled kid who learns to both work and notice other people in the world while working with the fishermen. Freddie actually gets top billing over Tracy, ship's captain Lionel Barrymore, father Melvyn Douglas, and shipmate Mickey Rooney (thankfully sedated and without much dialogue). Barrymore (who detested child actors) said he could always work with Bartholomew because "he was never cute, he never acted like a child." Fleming later directed Gone With the Wind and Wizard of Oz.


Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

Jim Goddard, 1982, 8 hrs. (8.8*)
Brilliantly conceived and executed, this filming of the eight-hour stage production by the Royal Shakespeare Company covers four DVD's, and remains one of the greatest theatrical productions in history, accurately adapting a Charles Dickens novel for perhaps the first time in the history of dramatic arts. Only 39 actors portray over 250 roles in this massive production, which gave theatre-goers two ways to see the play: over four weekday nights, two hours per night, or in an all-day Saturday performance with a one hour lunch break! Roger Rees has the title role in a star-making breakthrough - I can't imagine the hundreds of pages of dialogue he had to memorize in order to give this performance in a day. All the actors are superb, and director Jim Goddard involves the audience by having some characters appear from within the audience, and some actors leave the stage to run or walk through the audience.

This is the British stage at its best. Forget all the other versions of Nickleby, if you only see one Dickens novel adapted in your lifetime, this is the one!


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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