Friday, February 26, 2010

For the Weekend: A Little Dose of Good Stuff

I know I mention TCM a lot, but O-M-G, it's such an awesome channel for people like me!  AND their 31 Days of Oscars is just heavenly programming!  Unfortunately, I still do not have cable, so I get to live vicariously through all my readers by discussing the great movies on there.  And for this weekend, I have 3 movies I think you should check out.

First is "The Manchurian Candidate," the original 1962 version with the creepiest Angela Lansbury you will ever come across.  Also starring Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh, and Laurence Harvey, it tells the story of what everyone feared back in the McCarthy era - secret communist mind control.  Based on the book by Richard Condon, "The Manchurian Candidate" captivated audiences fresh off the anti-communist days with its dark political satire and queasy thrill moments.  Many believe its Sinatra's best performance ever, but it's truly Lansbury who shines.  Although actually only 3 years older than Harvey, she made such a powerful impact as his controlling mother that she won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar.  You can catch "The Manchurian Candidate" at 10:30am EST on Saturday, the 27th.

Later that evening (much later), at 3:30am EST, I recommend another strong cast, this time all females.  The film is "Stage Door" from 1937.  It stars Ginger Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, and Eve Arden - just to name a few familiar faces.  It tells the story of a group of struggling actresses trying to make their way in New York City, all living in the same boarding house.  It's funny and heart-breaking all at the same time.  Director Gregory LaCava let the cast ad-lib their girl-biting quips many times, so you truly get the personality of actors like Rogers and Ball coming out in their roles.  You can also hear Hepburn saying her famous line "The calla lilies are in bloom again" in this film, though originally from the play "The Lake" in which she starred (and to which Dorothy Parker famously reviewed her performance as running "the gamut of emotions - from A to B").

Finally, to top off the weekend, check out "Road to Morocco" (1942) at 2pm EST on Sunday, the 28th.  This is considered by many (including me) to be the best of Bing Crosby's and Bob Hope's "Road" pictures.  In this film, we find the hilarious pair shipwrecked off the coast of Africa. As they make their way to Morocco, they run across the always-delightful and fellow "Road"-ie Dorothy Lamour, and "Morocco" baddie Anthony Quinn.  Nothing but hilarity and fun ensues as the two try to survive. Crosby and Hope banter about their situation, their villains, even their studio, Paramount.  Their chemistry is smooth as silk as they play off each other, something not to be missed.

So, plop yourself down this weekend and enjoy some TCM goodies, a nice little variety for the movie lover's pallet.  Have a wonderful weekend and I'll see ya back here on Monday.

(Port-tidbit:  Ann Miller was only 14 years old when she made "Stage Door."  She lied, with the help of a faked birth certificate, saying she was 18, to get the part.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Secret of NIMH: Back to Tradition

I was going through some old VHS tapes this weekend, when I came across "The Secret of NIMH."  I hadn't watched it in quite some time, but it has always been one of my favorites from childhood.  So, getting that rush of nostalgia again, I decided to watch it and write about it today.

"The Secret of NIMH," released in 1982, was the first full-length production from Don Bluth and "the Disney Defectors," a group of animators that had left Disney to start their own company because they did not agree with the level of animation being done at the studio at that time.  They wanted to go back to traditional, classic animation techniques, instead of the low-quality cost cutting Disney was doing.  And Bluth and company's dedication to traditional animation can be seen throughout "NIMH."

Based on the book "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" by Robert C. O'Brien, it tells the story of a shy field mouse, Mrs. Brisby, living on a farm.  One of her sons gets terribly sick right before they must move from the field before plowing season begins.  So, to help save her family, she goes to the strange rats that live in a rosebush close to the farmer's house.  These rats, along with Mrs. Brisby's late husband, were once tested on by NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) and now have human-level intelligence.  They agree to help move her family home to a safe place, but not before tragedy strikes.  It is a great story of love and courage, as well as a good lesson about the treatment of lab animals.

Originally rejected by Disney for being too dark, Bluth got partners Aurora Productions to purchase the rights to O'Brien's book.  At a budget half as small as any Disney animated feature at the time, Bluth was determined to get it done well, yet within budget.  Many animators worked 110-hour weeks at no extra compensation expect a percentage of the film's profits.  Bluth and his producer partners, John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman, as well as some of the Aurora Productions executives, mortgaged their houses to collectively get an extra $700,000 for the film.

Now in the book, the name for the main character is Mrs. Frisby.  They actually recorded all the actors saying "Frisby" before they finally got word from Wham-O, the makers of the Frisbee toy.  Wham-O would not grant them a waiver to use the name Frisby, so the creators had to go back and change everyone's recordings to say "Brisby."  Unfortunately, not every actor could make it back to rerecord their lines, so some "Brisby" references were actually created by the sound editors very carefully cutting out the "B" sound from other words and replacing the "F" sound in "Frisby" with the "B."  This was before computer programs like ProTools, so they managed to do that with tape...cutting actual tape for one little sound.  Amazing...

So, check out "The Secret of NIMH" this week for some classic animation, good characters, and a great story.  You can find on almost any website for free these days, including Hulu.  Enjoy and have a great week!

(Post-tidbit: This was the film debut for both Shannen Doherty and Wil Wheaton, who voiced two of the Brisby children.  Wheaton went on to star in "Stand By Me" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation."  And Doherty went on to be the infamous bad girl of "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Charmed.")

Friday, February 19, 2010

For the Weekend: Oscars on the Brain

The Academy Awards are almost here (March 7th)!  And that means you can expect some award-winning movies to show up on television in anticipation.  TCM has its annual "31 Days of Oscar" schedule of fun.  And this weekend, even AMC has some great Oscar-winning movies on.  So, I say let's start celebrating the best of the best!

TCM's weekend schedule includes some real powerhouses.  On Saturday, start your weekend out with a good dose of one of England's greatest actors, Richard Burton.  And that voice, that voice!  Who wouldn't mind starting their weekend just listening to Burton talk for a few hours?!  It makes me melt just thinking about it.  The double-feature of "The Night of the Iguana" (1964) and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966) starts at 8:15am EST.  Both are screen adaptations of plays by great American playwrights - Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, respectively.  "Iguana," directed by the legendary John Huston, tells the story of a defrocked priest and his sins in a small Mexico hotel.  Filmed in then-secluded Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, Huston gave each of the five leads (Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Sue Lyon, and Grayson Hall being the other four) a gold-encrusted pistol with a bullet engraved with each actor's name, so that if they really got frustrated enough with each other, they had a designated weapon to use.  Luckily, there were no problems between the cast.  In "Virginia Woolf," Burton joins his famous wife Elizabeth Taylor for a mighty dramatic story of a middle-aged married couple on the brink of destruction.  Taylor won the Best Actress Oscar for this film, and each of the other cast members (Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis) were nominated as well.

For a more recent Academy Award winner, AMC is showing "The Queen" (2006) a couple of times this weekend.  The story of England's royal family and prime minister after the death of Princess Diana in 1997 is heartwarmingly told in this film directed by Stephen Frears.  The always-amazing Helen Mirren won a much-disserved Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, and Michael Sheen's portrayal of Prime Minister Tony Blair is great to watch.  Frears was nominated for his direction of this film as well.

So, start gearing up for the Oscars this weekend with some great films of the past Academy Award races.  Also, check out the TCM widget I previously posted today for some extra Oscar fun and viewing ideas.  Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday!

(Post-tidbit:  "Virginia Woolf" was the fourth film Burton and Taylor did together.  They ended up doing eleven films together total.)

TCM's 31 Days of Oscar Moodboard

Monday, February 15, 2010

Galaxy Quest: For the Geek in All of Us

In my efforts to stay clear of any kind of romantic stories yesterday, I started watching a lot of "Star Trek" movies.  So naturally, when I was deciding on what movie to write about today, I chose my favorite - "Galaxy Quest"!

Released Christmas Day 1999, this spoof of the "Star Trek" world was a hilarious present to all fanboys and Trekkies out there.  And thanks to my dad, I am a definite Trekkie.  (They might call themselves Trekkers now, but I still go with the original.)  Though I've only been to 2 conventions myself (Star Wars and Comic Con...yes, I'm that much of a geek sometimes, but a hot girlie one), I definitely understand this movie as it starts out at a fan convention.  It tells the story of a group of actors, forever stuck in the world of their cancelled sci-fi show, going from convention to lame gig and back to convention again.  When some aliens come down to Earth in need of their help, thinking the show is real, the actors get in way over their heads in the middle of a huge intergalactic space battle. 

"Galaxy Quest" hilariously spoofs the "Star Trek" world, actors and fans alike.  However, it's done so brilliantly that it never puts anyone down, or relies only on stupid jokes to just make fun of it.  Instead, it intelligently manages to joke about the world yet honor it all at the same time.  Even some "Star Trek" actors agree.  Patrick Stewart (sorry, I should say Sir Patrick Stewart now, heehee) said, "I had originally not wanted to see 'Galaxy Quest' because I heard that it was making fun of 'Star Trek' and then Jonathan Frakes rang me up and said 'You must not miss this movie! See it on a Saturday night in a full theatre.' And I did and of course I found it was brilliant. Brilliant. No one laughed louder or longer in the cinema than I was both funny and also touching in that it paid tribute to the dedication of these fans."

Starring Tim Allen as the William Shatner-esque Jason Nesmith, the screenwriter David Howard pulled not only from the "Star Trek" series, but also the actors' real lives.  The scene in which Nesmith, in the men's room, overhears a couple of guys discussing how lame they think he is actually resembles a similar experience Shatner had at a "Star Trek" convention.  The rest of the cast is brilliant at portraying the other Star-Trek-type actors.  Sigourney Weaver plays Gwen DeMarco, the only female on the show with no real job except repeating the ship's computer.  Alan Rickman plays Alexander Dane, a British Shakespearean actor, now forever in an alien-looking headpiece and repeating a single phrase said by his tv show character.  (We actually never see him without his headpiece through the entire film.)  There's even the "expendable crewman" played by Sam Rockwell, desperately trying not to become the dreaded "Star Trek redshirt" (the guys who died in every "Star Trek" episode). 

There are also many hidden tributes to "Star Trek" throughout the film.  The spaceship NSEA Protector's design is based on a "Star Trek" comm-badge.  And the Protector's serial number, NTE-3120?  NTE stands for "Not the Enterprise."  The rock monster is from Shatner's desire to have rock monsters in the finale of "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier."  Nesmith's unnecessary rolling in danger situations is from Shatner's unnecessary rolling in several "Star Trek" episodes.  And the evil Sarris' eye-patch is a tribute to Christopher Plummer's eye-patch in "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country."

Most importantly, the film pays tribute to the fans that made it what it is.  Yes, some might be a little odd, but in the end, the fans always save the day.  The satire not only brings redemption and growth to the actors, but to the fans as well.  So break out your inner fan-dom and check out "Galaxy Quest" this week. 

(Post-tidbit: There is also a special reason for me loving this movie - watching my good friend, Dan McLaughlin, as one of the aliens toward the end of the film.  Go Dan!!)

Friday, February 12, 2010

For the Weekend: Far from Love

Ok, so I already gave you a good suggestion with "The Princess Bride" for the romantics out there actually wanting to celebrate all things Valentine's this weekend.  Now I'd like to suggest a little bit of viewing this weekend for those of us who want to stay as far away from love as possible over the next few days.

First off, I submit the AMC channel for your viewing pleasure.  Sure, you have to put up with commercials and some editing for content, but they are showing films as far from love stories as you can get all weekend long.  Starting tonight at 5pm with "Pulp Fiction," AMC spends the next few days showing more stories of action and violence than love, including movies like "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "Kelly's Heroes," "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," "Goodfellas," and "The Godfather."  With the exception of "The Whole Nine Yards" on Sunday morning, with its love premise playing such a key role in the comedic violence, you are pretty much set for a weekend void of sappy love to ruin it.

Now, if you're in the mood for a more laughable loveless approach, I recommend "Ghostbusters" and its sequel, now available for free on  Who's going to be thinking about that silly holiday when you're laughing at Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, and Ernie Hudson trying to survive New York City and all its ghosts.  Sure, there's the romance between Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray in both films, but luckily there is nothing gooey about it.  It's a love story for the cynic in all of us.  Yes, they get their happy ending, but first Sigourney gets turned into a dog, so...who really wants to go through that?  And you can visualize blowing up all those heart-shaped boxes of sugary sweets when the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man gets blown to smithereens.  I say that's a great way to be as anti-love Sunday as possible.

So, if you need to vent about those big V-Day pressures or expectations of the world, check out AMC or Hulu this weekend.  But whatever your take is on Valentine's Day, I hope it is wonderful no matter what you do.  Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.

(Post-tidbit:  Bill Murray recently said he would be happy to return for "Ghostbusters III" long as he got to play the ghost.)

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Princess Bride: The Perfect Fairytale

Once upon a time when I was just a wee little thing, I saw "The Princess Bride" for the first time...then a second time...then a hundredth time.  Being a hopelessly romantic girl how could I not?  Dashing pirates (yes, that theme again), true love, adventure, treachery, shrieking eels and R.O.U.S.'s, and most importantly, lots of laughs.  This was how I wanted to be loved (luckily I've learned the difference since then...I think). 

Directed by Rob Reiner and written by William Goldman (yes, him again too), this fairytale tells the story of Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn) and Westley (Cary Elwes).  Parted by cruel fate, thinking Westley to be dead, Buttercup agrees to marry the evil Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon).  Only before she can marry him, he has her kidnapped by three men - Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), Inigo (Mandy Patinkin), and Fezzik (Andre the Giant).  Luckily she is rescued by the Man in Black, aka the Dread Pirate Roberts, the most feared pirate on the high seas.  Only he is actually her long lost love Westley.  The confusion, the relief, the dreaded hunt for the two lovers by Humperdinck himself and then the ultimate fight to save true love!  What a story!  I will leave the rest for your anticipation if you have never seen it, but I'm pretty sure it's part of everyone's repertoire.

I mean, my friends and I can never pass up an opportunity to quote those great lines.  To this day, if anyone says, "Stop it now. I mean it," I have to say "Anybody want a peanut?," even in the most serious of situations.  William Goldman has such a knack for writing dialogue that works so well.  Based on his book of the same title, the screenplay is a great model for any aspiring screenwriter wanting to train more.  His book, from 1973, tells the story the same way, as if he found this old book his father used to read to him as a kid, and like Peter Falk (as the Grandfather) in the film, he interrupts the story with side commentary that any kid would appreciate.  I read the book for the first time during college, and it has become one of my favorites as well.

Now, back to the film, "The Princess Bride" was considered one of the best films of 1987.  Even though it only doubled its money at the box office, it was a critical favorite.  Having grown to cult status, it has also been part of many top 100 lists over the years, including AFI's "100 Years...100 Passions" list (#88). 

Shot mainly in England, it had its pains here and there.  Cary Elwes broke his toe driving a small four-wheeler during filming of the chase scene.  (That's why he limps a little while running into the Fire Swamp.)  Later, when Elwes told Christopher Guest to really hit him on the head, Guest hit him so hard they had to shut down production while Elwes went to the hospital.  Andre the Giant had undergone back surgery prior to the shoot, so he couldn't even support the weight of Robin Wright Penn or Elwes.  When Buttercup jumps into his arms near the end of the film, she had to be supported by wires.  Also during the close-ups of his fight with the Man in Black, Elwes was actually walking on ramps below.  The overhead shots of the fight were filmed with a double.  Finally, during Billy Crystal's scenes, Reiner had to leave the set because he was laughing so hard, it was making him nauseous.  And, according to Patinkin, the only injury he sustained during the shot was a bruised rib from trying not to laugh during Crystal's scenes either.

Patinkin says Inigo Montoya is his favorite character he's ever played.  During his live performances, he usually concludes with "My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die" as a treat for everyone he knows came to his show just for that.  Cary Elwes was chosen for the part of Westley for his Douglas Fairbanks-Errol Flynn quality, according to Reiner, after seeing him in "Lady Jane" (1986).  It was his very first comedy, and since then he has continued in many more, including "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" where he got to use his sword fighting skills again.  And though Andre was always his first choice for Fezzik, during the 70s when Goldman first tried to get the movie made, a little-known actor/bodybuilder by the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger really wanted to play Fezzik himself.  Unfortunately (but fortunate for us), he was too big of a star by the time the film was finally greenlit.

So, if you're in the mood for a fairytale for everyone to enjoy, check out "The Princess Bride"...again.  Just in time for Valentine's Day.  Have a great week everyone, and I'll see you Friday.

(Post-tidbit:  Composer Mark Knopfler only agreed to do the music for the film if Reiner did one thing for him - put Reiner's hat from "This is Spinal Tap" in the film.  It can be seen in the Grandson's bedroom.  An odd request, but it makes for some fun little trivia now.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

For the Weekend: More Manly Men

It's almost Super Bowl Sunday!  Time for all of America to sit in their homes and watch large, burly men in shoulder pads purposely run into each other over a little ball.  So, for this weekend, I thought I'd suggest some movies with more tough men to keep the spirit going.

On Saturday, TCM is playing movies full of tough men all day long, starting with "How the West Was Won" (1962) at 9:30 am EST and ending with "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) at midnight.  If you can't watch all day because you have to go shopping for your own Super Bowl party, try at least to catch "The Great Escape" (1963) and "Bullitt" (1968), starting at 5 pm EST.  Both star one of the manliest of film stars, Steve McQueen.  In "Escape," he plays a prisoner-of-war trying to escape a German camp, aided by a large cast of talented costars, including James Garner, Richard Attenborough, and James Coburn, to name a few. In "Bullitt," he plays a policeman determined to find the mobster that killed the witness he was protecting, and includes one of the greatest car chases on film.  Actually filmed through the streets of San Francisco, the chase took 3 weeks to complete.  The filmmakers wanted to use the Golden Gate Bridge as well, but the city wouldn't give them permission.

If you're in the mood for your men on a lighter side this weekend, check out "McLintock!" (1963) on Hulu.  John Wayne plays McLintock, the cattle baron of his small town.  When his estranged wife (Maureen O'Hara) comes back for the homecoming of their daughter (Stefanie Powers), hilarity and mayhem ensue. Inspired by Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew," it is a delightful knockabout comedy, and the fourth film to team Wayne and O'Hara together, one of the great pairings in screen history.

So, go enjoy your finger foods this Sunday, but be sure to enjoy some more powerhouses too.  And "GO [insert team of choice here]!!"

(Post-tidbit: "Bullit" was the first mainstream film to use the word "bullshit" in its script.)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Young Bess: For You, Ms. Simmons

As I mentioned on Friday, we lost an amazing actress recently, Jean Simmons.  And so I thought I would talk about my favorite movie of hers this week, "Young Bess" (1953).  Most people I talk to have never heard of this movie.  Heck, most people think I'm talking about the KISS guy whenever I mention Jean Simmons.  But this film is a fun treasure that I feel everyone should check out sometime.

Superbly acted, it tells the story of young Elizabeth I before she became the powerful queen we know.  Ms. Simmons plays Elizabeth (a much prettier Elizabeth than history tells us, but, hey, it's Hollywood) and her husband at the time Stewart Granger plays her love interest Thomas Seymour.  Deborah Kerr also stars as Catherine Parr, the last of Henry VIII's wives, and Charles Laughton plays the infamous monarch again, 20 years after playing him in "The Private Life of Henry VIII." 

Released the same week as Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953, this movie was part of the whole world's immense fascination at the time with all monarchs named Elizabeth.  Based on Margaret Irwin's novel of the same name, the historical accuracy of this story leaves something to be desired though.  In the screenplay, Elizabeth, having been bounced around from banished to favored and back again after the execution of her mother Anne Boleyn, falls for the kindness of Thomas Seymour, even though he is already in love with Catherine Parr.  In reality, it was Seymour who made advances on Elizabeth, who consequently rejected him.  (She said when he died, "Today died a man of much wit and very little judgment.")  That's just one example of the inaccuracy, but this story is still great fun to watch - 50s Hollywood in all its glory and glam. 

I first discovered this film when I was a kid because of my own fascination with Elizabeth I, whom I had just started learning about in school, and also because of one man - Stewart Granger! (*sigh*)  I had a HUGE crush on him as a little girl and scoured the television channels and video store to watch every movie I could find of his.  (And yes, I still swoon when I see his films today.)  He and Jean had been married for 3 years when they made "Young Bess."  They had just won a huge battle against the eccentric mogul Howard Hughes.  When they moved to America in 1950, they were not married yet.  But Hughes helped them out, and let them marry at his place in Arizona.  Unfortunately, he became obsessed with Simmons, and bought out her contract to J. Arthur Rank, the British producer to whom she was still connected.  When she refused to sign a new 7-year contract with Hughes and his company RKO, he proceeded to destroy her career, putting her in horrid films for the remainder of her existing contract.  Simmons and Granger finally managed to win their lawsuit with Hughes out of court, and Simmons regained control of her career.

And thank goodness she did!  Otherwise we wouldn't have been able to enjoy her in films like "Guys and Dolls," "Big Country," or "Elmer Gantry."  I had the great pleasure of meeting Ms. Simmons on one of her later gigs.  She was working on the English dubbing of Miyazaki's "Howl's Moving Castle," and a friend of mine, knowing I was a fan, asked if I'd like to watch her work.  I jumped at the chance, and it is one of my most enjoyable memories of living here in Los Angeles.  Too nervous to say hello, she noticed me sheepishly watching her with a huge, dorky smile on my face.  Finally, during a break, I got up the nerve and went to say hello.  She was an absolute delight to talk to, especially after I mentioned that I was the fan, not my mother or grandmother.  When I said goodbye, she hugged me, and I went away happy as a clam that I had finally met one of my idols.

Unfortunately, "Young Bess" is not on DVD yet, but you can catch it on YouTube.  Also, TCM plays it pretty regularly, so keep an eye out there (as I will do as well for you).  You will be happily pleased, I am sure of it.

(Post-tidbit:  It was not a problem for Stewart Granger to kiss Deborah Kerr as well in "Young Bess."  Before meeting Simmons, Granger had an affair with Kerr (which ended amicably, for Granger introduced her to her future husband). )