Friday, July 23, 2010

For the Weekend: More Tidbits

Wow, it's been one busy week for me these past several days.  Unfortunately, that meant I didn't have time to do my normal research and peruse of the weekend schedule for you.  So, instead, I thought I'd comply a list of tidbits that I left out of previous posts.

"Animal House" - Donald Sutherland originally said "No" to appearing in the comedy.  It was only after talking with John Landis (who used to baby-sit his son Kiefer) that he finally agreed.  When they negotiated his salary, though, he got the choice of either a flat fee of $75,000 or a smaller fee and a percentage of the profits.  Thinking the film would bomb, he took the flat rate.  This means he lost out on an additional $3-4 million.

"Armageddon" - The asteroid that hits Earth in the opening scene (set 65 million years ago) is the same shape as the yellow strike in the Touchstone Pictures logo, one of the films production companies.

"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" - Katharine Ross did not like working with director George Roy Hill.  Therefore, her favorite scene in the entire movie is the bicycle scene, because it was filmed by the second unit crew.  In her words, "any day away from Hill was a good one."

"Dr. Strangelove" - Stanley Kubrick actually pushed George C. Scott to overact his part, which was very annoying to Scott.  He vowed never to work with Kubrick again.  As time passed, Scott saw the error of his ways and came to think of "Strangelove" as one of his favorite performances.

"Finding Nemo" - If you don't notice, the name of Deb's "twin" sister (aka her reflection) is Flo.  Deb and Flo...get it?  Ebb and flow, like the tides.  Cool, huh?  Gotta love those Pixar peeps.  :)

"Lawrence of Arabia" - The film took a very long to finish shooting.  Therefore, because of the retakes later in the production, there are scenes in the finished film where Peter O'Toole walks out of a scene a year older than when he walked into it.

"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" - Did you ever wonder where the Python boys found the picture of "God"?  Well, it's actually a picture of a famous English cricket player from the 19th century called W.G. Grace.

"North by Northwest" - I love the attention great directors always seem to play to even the little details, and Hitchcock is no exception.  There's a song playing in the background during Cary Grant's scene in The Plaza Hotel's Oak Bar, when his adventure begins.  You know what it is?  "It's a Most Unusual Day."  Oh, the foreshadowing in that. 

"Now, Voyager" - The image of Paul Henreid lighting two cigarettes at once became so ingrained in the public's mind that poor Henreid could barely go anywhere after "Voyager" without being accosted by women wanting him to light a cigarette for them.

"Stand by Me" - Rob Reiner is an avid non-smoker, even having campaigned for anti-smoking laws.  So when the script required the boys to smoke cigarettes, they are actually smoking cabbage leaves instead.

"The Apartment" - The great Paul Douglas was originally cast as the heartless Sheldrake, but sadly he passed away before filming began.

"The Empire Strikes Back" - Frank Oz did such a great job with Yoda that sometimes during filming, Irvin Kershner would give direction directly to the puppet itself, forgetting about Oz underneath.

"The Princess Bride" - Writer of the book and screenplay William Goldman was on the set the day they shot Robin Wright's dress catching on fire.  Obviously knowing what was going to happen, he still got so caught up in the moment that he screamed, "Her dress is on fire!" and thus ruined the take.

"The Sound of Music" - In the famous opening shot, where we swoop down on Maria singing the title song in the mountains, Robert Wise wanted the helicopter with the camera to get as close to Julie Andrews as possible.  What it resulted in was Andrews continually getting knocked to the ground by the draft, even when she dug her heels into the ground.

"Viva Las Vegas" - While filming the wedding scenes in "Vegas," several tabloids got a hold of the pictures.  Thus there were quite a lot of stories about Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret secretly getting married.

Aren't little bits of trivia so much fun?!  I hope one of them wets your appetite for a repeat viewing of some of your favorite films this weekend.  I'm gonna go park myself in front of my Wii and stream some Netflix goodies myself.  Have a great couple of days off, everyone!  Be back Monday with another fun film.  :)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Raiders of the Lost Ark: For the Kid in Us All

Remember those summers as a kid, where your imagination ran wild and adventure was everywhere?  We were explorers, wandering around those lazy days, searching for all that excitement we knew was out there, just waiting around the corner.  I miss those summer days as I break my back at a job that offers no adventure at all, only the same old drudgery.  Today's favorite of mine reminds me of those days long past, a wonderful remedy when life gets a little drawn.  Cause today I'm talking about "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

That's right, the first and best of the Indiana Jones films!  Released in June 1981, "Raiders" introduced us to Jones and his exciting world as an archeologist.  Set back in 1936, Professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is commissioned by the US government to find the Lost Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do.  So with the help of a former flame (Karen Allen), they travel to Egypt where the race to the Ark leads them into danger over and over again.

George Lucas came up with the story (then called "The Adventures of Indiana Smith") back at the same time he came up with the story for "Star Wars" (1977).  With the help of friend Philip Kaufman, the two developed the throwback story to the film serials of the 1930s.  However, they put it aside when Lucas decided to focus all his attention on developing "Star Wars" instead.  A few years later, while vacationing in Hawaii (and hiding from the "Star Wars" mayhem) with buddy Steven Spielberg, the two were hanging out on the beach when Spielberg mentioned he wanted to direct a James Bond film.  Lucas told him about Indiana instead, which Spielberg loved, and thus began the production of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

With the assistance of screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who was working on Lucas' "Empire Strikes Back" (1980) at the time, the three men came up with a 100-page treatment for "Raiders" that took Kasdan six months to dwindle down into his first draft of the screenplay. They had so many ideas that just didn't fit so many ended up in the next Indiana film, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984), like a mine chase scene, jumping from a plane with a raft, and a rolling gong for a shield.  Spielberg wanted Indiana to be much darker than Lucas did, more Bond and Bogart.  Luckily, both Lucas and Kasdan were able to persuade him otherwise, stating that his history already made him complex enough.

Now, originally, Lucas didn't want Harrison Ford to play Jones.  Ford was always Spielberg's first choice, but he had already appeared in the "Star Wars" films and "American Graffiti" (1973), and Lucas didn't want him labeled as "that guy in all his films."  So, Lucas convinced Spielberg to audition lesser-known actors for the part, like Tim Matheson, Peter Coyote, and Nick Nolte.  They finally decided on Tom Selleck, but unfortunately (or fortunately for Ford), Selleck's "Magnum P.I." schedule ended up conflicting with the film schedule.  Thus, about three weeks before filming began, producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, along with Spielberg, finally convinced Lucas that Ford was just the right man for the part.

You know what makes this film so great?  It's that B-movie style Spielberg purposely went for (something he lost sight of for the fourth Indiana film, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"(2008)).  Since the story was essentially a modern version of those B-movie favorites, and because the budget for "Raiders" was small, Spielberg deliberately shot things as fast as possible, in 4 or 5 takes instead of 20.  Because of this, he storyboarded "Raiders" more than any other film he has done.  And other than the special effects during the grand finale sequence, all the rest are real men doing real stunts in real locations.  None of this green screen, CGI cra...ridiculousness that comes out today (including "Crystal Skull").  Ironically enough, Spielberg stated after "Raiders" that if he had had more money to do things more thoroughly, "it would have turned out a pretentious movie."  If only he had stuck with that advice.

All in all, "Raiders" is a fun film made by a couple of grown men remembering their favorites of youth.  I'm all for that!  So, get out that fedora (I know you have one), remember those days gone by, those summers filled with adventures, and watch "Raiders of the Lost Ark" again...and again...and maybe again.  Until next time.  Have a great week, everyone!

(Post-tidbit: Many of the temple's booby traps in the opening sequence were actually inspired by old Scrooge McDuck comics from the 1950s, of which both Lucas and Spielberg were fans.  You can find the flying darts, the idol mechanism, and the rolling boulder in those comics.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

For the Weekend: Summertime and The Livin's Easy

Boy, summer has definitely hit us!  Out here in LA, the June gloom finally realized it was July and quickly left this week.  Guess it was only a matter of time before the West Coast met up with the East Coast heat.  Well, that just means it's time to enjoy those summer movie flicks!  

First up, how can we talk about silly, fun summer flicks without 1987's "Summer School"?  If you're a kid of the 80s, I know you can't.  Carl Reiner directs Mark Harmon, Kirstie Alley, Robin Thomas, and Courtney Thorne-Smith in this light-hearted comedy about a fun-loving, beach-living high school gym teacher (Harmon) forced to spend his summer teaching a remedial English class.  This is one of those movies I always watch whenever I notice it on television.  And why shouldn't I, being a child of the 80s?  We get to see the same school used for "The Karate Kid" (the original 1984 true Karate Kid), Charles Evans Hughes Jr. High School in Woodland Hills, CA, filmed again here.  And we get a soundtrack filled with 80s, truly 80s, singers like Debbie Harry, Paul Engemann, E. G. Daily, and even Eddie Murphy (with his classic "Party All the Time").  What sounds more fun than that?

Next, you can't talk about summer movies without talking about the ridiculously outrageous big budget action films that fill the theaters ever year, and "Armageddon" (1998) epitomizes that to a T.  Remember back in the 90s, when we actually made deep-oil drillers into heroes?  I know this might be in bad taste after BP destroyed the Gulf, but I can't help it.  "Armageddon" is my ultimate guilty pleasure!  There is no crappy movie higher.  In this Michael Bay-Jerry Bruckheimer extravaganza of explosions (even in the vacuum of space?), Bruce Willis stars as Harry Stamper, an oil driller, who is asked to save the world and destroy an asteroid the size of Texas heading straight for Earth.  Costars include a cavalcade of names like Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, Michael Clark Duncan, and Jason Isaacs.  Producers actually managed to get permission from NASA to use much of their restricted equipment and facilities, like the 40-foot-deep pool used to train astronauts for weightlessness and the original Apollo 1 launch site.  Those are even real NASA spacesuits the cast wears, something no other civilian has gotten to do.  NASA agreed to all this, hoping "Armageddon" would have the same recruitment effect that "Top Gun" (1986) had for the Naval Air Force.  Of course, they ended up using it more to train managers by counting all the scientific mistakes (like being able to land on an asteroid).  Oh well, I just call it Hollywood at its most fanciful.

Finally, if you live in the LA area, then it's time for one of the greatest summer viewing experiences this town has to offer.  Get out your blankets and picnic baskets, and head to Hollywood Cemetery tomorrow night for "Saturday Night Fever." At 9pm, the show starts on this 1977 classic starring John Travolta as a young man struggling with real life in Brooklyn by escaping to the disco every weekend and dancing his worries away.  Filmed in the streets of New York City a lot, production often had to halt because of the screaming "Welcome Back, Kotter" fans, mainly teenage girls drooling over Travolta.  Karen Lynn Gorney costars, but there were quite a lot of other famous names up for the part of Stephanie, including Jessica Lange, Kathleen Quinlan, Carrie Fisher, and Amy Irving.  Donna Pescow, who won the role of Annette, was actually considered too pretty for the role so she purposely gained 40 lbs. for it.  Travolta, on the other hand, did so much exercising and dancing for the film that he dropped 20 lbs. 

All the above films are currently on DVD, so my advice this weekend?  Hop in your car and make a quick trip to the rental store.  Then go home, crank the A/C, and enjoy some summer living through the decades.  And if you're in LA, venture out Saturday evening for a true one-of-a-kind experience.  Until Monday, everyone.  Have a wonderful weekend!

(Post-tidbit: Liv Tyler turned down the role of Grace Stamper in "Armageddon" three times before finally accepting.  And thank goodness she did, or we never would have gotten to see that just-kinda-seems-wrong image of her father Steven Tyler singing a love song to his little girl in the music video for "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing." (Watch the video below.))

Monday, July 12, 2010

Grosse Pointe Blank: A Little Dark Humor

I got into one of those dark humor moods this weekend, so I started watching all my black comedies, like "Heathers," "Dr. Strangelove," and "Dogma."  But none of them hit the spot as much as one of my absolute favorites, so what better time to write about it.  Get out your guns and reunion invitations because we are talking about "Grosse Pointe Blank" today!

From 1997, "Grosse Pointe Blank" tells the story of a hit man, Martin Blank, who starts to become more and more stressed by his work.  He finally decides to go back to his home town in Michigan for his 10-year high school reunion...and pickup a job while he's out there.  Yet when he reconnects with his long-lost high school girlfriend (the love of his life), he begins to question his morals about life and killing.  It's a hilarious comedy starring John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Dan Aykroyd, Joan Cusack, Jeremy Piven, and Alan Arkin.

I love this film!  It's one of my dad's favorites too, so we always get a kick out of watching it together.  Like I've said before, I get my sense of humor mainly from my dad so it's no wonder this is one of our favs.  We love the lighthearted stuff but we also love the dark, satirical stuff, because it's just plain healthy to laugh at the absurdities of life sometimes.  This film is also a good test for guys I've dated.  If they have never seen this film, I always bring it out to show them, and if they don't love it...well, let's just say the relationship doesn't last much longer.
With a 76% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it's considered by many to be one of the best comedies of the 90s.  Written by Cusack, Tom Jankiewicz, D.V. DeVincentis, and Steve Pink, and directed by George Armitage, it mainly takes place in the real town of Grosse Pointe, a suburb of Detroit.  Cusack liked the film's location because it reminded him of his own home town of Evanston, Illinois, a suburb to the north of Chicago.  Growing up, he and his siblings were a big part of the theater world in Chicago, thanks to a theater group run by Jeremy Piven's dad called the Piven Theatre Workshop.  "Grosse Pointe Blank" became its own reunion of sorts then, because not only was Piven and Cusack's sister Joan in the film, but so was his sister Ann Cusack and brother Bill.  Also, the assassin Felix La PuBelle, the one after John Cusack's character, is Cusack's kickboxing mentor and trainer Benny Urquidez.  Cusack met him after playing aspiring kickboxer Lloyd Dobler in "Say Anything..." (1989) and has been training with him ever since.  It was Cusack who decided Urquidez would be perfect for the part in "Grosse Pointe Blank."
They did not, however, get the chance to do the majority of filming in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.  The town of Grosse Pointe and Grosse Pointe South High School felt it would not be good for the school district to have someone portray a graduate of the school becoming an assassin.  The production team decided to film everything in California instead.  John Marshall High School and Reseda High School in Los Angeles were both used for Grosse Pointe High, and the town of Monrovia, California was used for Grosse Pointe itself.  The only two scenes actually filmed in Michigan are the shots of Blank driving to and from Grosse Pointe along Lakeshore Drive.
And when you watch, be sure to check out all the 80s musical references.  Cusack, a big fan of music, has a tendency to pay homage to his favorite bands in a lot of his films, and "Grosse Pointe Blank" is no exception.  Not only are there lines from songs in the dialogue and old 80s band tour posters, but the soundtrack was put together by The Clash's Joe Strummer.  It includes songs from bands like The Clash, as well as Violent Femmes, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Specials, The Jam, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees and a-ha.  The soundtrack became so popular (it reached #31 on the Billboard 200) that they put out a second volume to it a few months later.
So, get your dark kicks this week as you laugh at the 14-body-count comedy "Grosse Pointe Blank."  You're sure to have a good time.  Until Friday.  Have a great week, everyone!
(Post-tidbit:  John Cusack actually went to his 10-year high school reunion in 1994...but only because he and the producers of "Grosse Pointe Blank" bet each other that if they managed to get the financing for the film, they would all have to attend their reunions.)

Friday, July 9, 2010

For the Weekend: The Real Avatar

Today's suggestion for the weekend is a little bit different because it's more of a "don't see" than a "do see."  Please, for the love of all that is good in the world, don't go see "The Last Airbender" (2010) this weekend.  Instead, pull up a couch cushion, and watch the wonderful cartoon series it is based on, Nickelodeon's "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (2005-2008).

"Avatar" is the story of a young 12-year-old, airbending monk named Aang who wakes up in a war-torn world after being frozen in an iceberg for 100 years.  You see, he is the avatar, the only person in his entire element-bending world that can control all four elements.  The avatar is the ultimate peace-keeper of that world, reborn over and over again.  Yet, when Aang found out about his awesome, impending responsibility, he freaked out, ran away, and got trapped in a horrible storm (thus leading to his iceberg home for the next century).  And while he was away, the Fire Nation got greedy and started a war.  They eliminated the Air Nomads (in search of the avatar), divided the Water Tribes, and have almost taken the Earth Kingdom completely.  So, with the help of Katara and Sokka, the two water tribe kids who found him, he must finally take over the role he was supposed to do 100 years ago, and bring peace to the world again.

Now, you're probably saying "Wait?  Isn't that the same as the movie?"  NO!  Yeah, same premise, but the movie (or should I say M. Night Shyamalan) misses out on one very specific quality about the cartoon series that made it so great - this is a story ABOUT kids.  Kids are not serious creatures.  They may know their responsibilities and step up the maturity level when needed, but only as long as they need to.  The rest of the time kids are playing and laughing and joking.  The creators of "Avatar," Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, mixed the serious and the lighthearted beautifully together in the series.  Even when the dialogue is a bit corny, like "being part of the group means being part of group hugs," they still would laugh about the corniness.  There is not a stitch of comedy in Shyamalan's entire script.  Oh wait, I did laugh when "The Daily Show"'s Aasif Mandvi showed up playing the evilest villain of the film, Commander Zhao, but I don't think I was supposed to.

And the second most important characteristic of the series that the movie misses out on?  It was written FOR kids.  That's right!  The cartoon series was written for kids about kids, and not a single bit of history or rules of the world was ever confusing.  Yet, Shyamalan's script is such a mess of narrated exposition and ridiculous dialogue that I don't know how anyone who hasn't seen the series could make sense of what is going on, child or adult.  Not to mention the horrible, static acting by all involved.  It doesn't help us understand them any better when we can't see any emotion in their eyes.  The series cast wonderful actors, like Mae Whitman (currently on "Parenthood") as Katara, Dante Basco ("Ru-fee-ooooooooo") as Zuko, even the late great Mako as Uncle Iroh, and Jason Isaacs as Zhao.  All had more emotion in just their voices than the entire onscreen cast of "The Last Airbender" put together.

And then there's Shyamalan, who decided to change races of the cartoon characters and "correct" the pronunciation of some character names, like changing Aang (pronounced "Ay-ng" in the series) to "Ah-ng" because that is how it would be correctly pronounced in Chinese.  I'm sorry, but to me, that's just thumbing your nose at the creators.  Yes, it may have been the correct way to pronounce it, but the fans already love the wrong way.  When you have something that already has such a loyal fan base, it's smart to stick to familiar as much as possible.  And, Shyamalan, how can you correct the Asian pronunciations, yet eliminate all the Asian cultures already represented in the show?  DiMartino and Konietzko purposely pulled much from the Asian cultures because of their love of it and anime.  Yet you kept some and ignored the rest?  Did we watch the same cartoon?

I know this is more of a bashing of a film, which is not my usual style, but "The Last Airbender" just baffles me.  All week long I've been reading more and more reviews of the film and most everyone agrees that it's horrid.  It has an 8% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, for crying out loud.  Yet it still came in #2 at the box office last weekend.  And I'm finding lots of comments on the reviews from people stating that if you are a true fan of the series, you'll love the film.  Excuse me?!  I cannot state how much I love the series!  It is one of the best cartoons to come out in a long time.  And I can't believe how someone can take something already so good and produce something so bad.  I saw the film with seven other people, half fans of the series and half never having watched a single episode.  None of us liked it.  I don't think there was a single person in the entire theater that night that liked it.  Everyone was dead silent in disbelief when the credits rolled.

So I have three pleas for the world today.  To all audience members out there - skip the theater this weekend and watch the true story of Aang and his friends with "Avatar: The Last Airbender."  You currently can watch the entire series instantly on Netflix.  Don't keep "The Last Airbender" up at the box office.  To Nickelodeon Studios, if you still want to make the two other films in the trilogy, please find another director for them, or you'll have a lot of people not going to see them.  And three, to M. Night Shyamalan, get over yourself and stop torturing us.  Until Monday, everyone.  Have a great weekend!

(Post-tidbit:  "The Last Airbender" was originally titled the full name of the series, "Avatar: The Last Airbender."  But shortly after Nickelodeon's announcement, James Cameron announced the name of his next film "Avatar." Nickelodeon sued Cameron over the title, but obviously lost.)

Monday, July 5, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird: An American Treasure

Did you have a nice Fourth yesterday?  I hope so cause today I'm still talking about some great American treasures.  TCM is celebrating one this July as their Star of the Month - Gregory Peck.  And this July 11th is the 50th anniversary of the other - Harper Lee's classic novel.  And when the two combined, we got one of the greatest American films ever made.  We got the film "To Kill a Mockingbird."

I'm sure you already know the story.  If you have been in grade school since the novel's release, then it's a given.  It's the coming-of-age story of Scout, a young girl growing up in a small Alabama town in the 1930s.  As the summers and falls pass, she begins to see the true harshness that can be found in the world, yet all the time she finds protection in the arms of her loving father Atticus.  Universal Pictures released the film adaptation of Lee's classic book in 1962.  The first film by the new production team Pakula-Mulligan, it stars Peck in the role of Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout.  It was an instant success, and won three out of its eight Oscar nominations, the biggest being Peck's win for Best Actor.

Peck had not read the book yet when he was offered the role, so before agreeing, he decided he should give it a try.  He ended up reading it in one sitting, and then called up producer Alan J. Pakula immediately to accept the role.  It was the perfect fit for him, as many have attested to since.  As Pakula once recalled, "The fit was among the most natural things about a most natural film. I must say the man and the character he played were not unalike."  Harper Lee herself visited the set while filming a scene where Atticus arrives home and his children Jem and Scout run up to meet him.  After the scene, Lee was in tears because Peck reminded her of her father exactly, on whom the character of Atticus was based.  Peck got to meet Amasa Lee, Harper's father, before filming began.  However, before the picture's release, Amasa passed away.  So Harper gave her father's pocket watch to Peck as a thank you for bringing Atticus to life so well.  Peck wore the watch the night he won his Oscar.

Lee and Peck remained close friends for the rest of his life.  (His grandson is named Harper in her honor.)  Peck remained close to many people in this production though, possibly because he felt it was his best experience.  He stayed in touch with Mary Badham, always calling her Scout.  And at Peck's funeral in 2003, Brock Peters who played Tom Robinson, the black man Atticus defends, spoke at his eulogy, "To my friend Gregory Peck, to my friend Atticus Finch, vaya con Dios."

I remember the first time I saw this film.  It was in grade school, after reading the book.  I was already a fan of Gregory Peck's but this solidified it for me.  I could see the truth in his eyes.  The loving father was there in every step.  I think it was the first time I ever really notice how a good actor can truly embody a character fully.  It's the same strength I saw in Peck in "Cape Fear" (one of the few scary films I like), that true sense of love and protection for children that are not his own.  This film made me love acting.

As for the children in "To Kill a Mockingbird," it was the first film for both Badham and Phillip Alford.  Alford didn't even want to go audition for the part, but when his mother told him that he would miss half a day of school to do it, he agreed.  And of course, like filming with most children, it was a grueling process sometimes.  During one scene where the Finch family is eating breakfast, little Badham was having trouble and kept messing up on every take.  Alford got so frustrated with her that he decided to get back at her in another scene.  When Jem rolls Scout down the street in an old tire, Alford purposely rolled Badham toward an equipment truck instead.  Badham earned an Oscar nomination for her role, yet lost out to another young actress, Patty Duke for "The Miracle Worker."

And, of course, let us not forget the other film debut in the bunch - Robert Duvall as Boo Radley.  "Mockingbird" screenwriter Horton Foote had recommended Duvall to Pakula himself.  Duvall had starred in a production of Foote's play "The Midnight Caller" in New York in 1957.  To prepare for this role, Duvall stayed out of the sun six weeks and bleached his hair. 

So celebrate some great American treasures this week with Gregory Peck as Atticus (the greatest hero of American cinema according to AFI) and "To Kill a Mockingbird".  You can watch it tonight on TCM at 10pm EST.  Have a wonderful week, everyone!

(Post-tidbit:  The famous courthouse set in "Mockingbird" was modeled exactly after the courthouse in Lee's hometown of Monroeville.  It is now a museum dedicated to the book, film and Lee.  You can also see a great play adaptation of "Mockingbird" there, performed in the courthouse and on the surrounding grounds by the townsfolk.)

Friday, July 2, 2010

For the Weekend: Dare to be Cliché

Woohoo!!  4th of July weekend is here!  Three-day fest, here I come!  Not only do I get to enjoy a nice holiday, but I also get to celebrate the birthdays of two of my favorite people this weekend (my brother Stephen and my friend Patrick).  And, AND, let us not forget - the birthday of our country.  (My fingers are crossed the days stay just as sunny and beautiful as today for it.)  So, with all that, why not be a little bit cliché this weekend, and watch some great movies celebrating America.

First up, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Frank Capra's classic film from Hollywood's greatest year, 1939. James Stewart stars as the title character Jefferson Smith, a young, patriotic man who is appointed to the Senate by his state's corrupt governor after the previous senator passes away.  However, when he arrives in DC, he discovers that the senior senator from his state (Claude Rains), his childhood idol, is also corrupt and trying to manipulate Smith's naivite.  So Smith does the only thing he can think of to stop the crooks' plans, he starts a filibuster on the Senate floor.  "Mr. Smith," now considered one of the best films in American history (it's ranked #26 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies list), was considered by many in the government to be very anti-American when it was released.  It premiered at Constitution Hall in DC with 4000 invited guests, including 45 senators.  A few senators actually walked out of the screening in disgust, saying it should be banned.  However, at the same time, "Mr. Smith" was banned in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Soviet Russia and Falangist Spain, for showing the good that can come from democracy.  The critics at the time all saw the greatness in the film, though, and it went on to receive 11 Oscar nominations (winning for Best Writing, Original Story).  You can catch "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" on TCM July 4th at 6:30am EST.

Next, try another political drama - "All the President's Men" (1976).  Based on the true story of journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's discovery of the Watergate scandal, it follows the two as their investigation leads to corruption deeper and deeper in the government.  It was produced by Robert Redford, directed by Alan J. Pakula, written by William Goldman, and stars Dustin Hoffman and Redford as the reporters.  Redford bought the rights to Woodward's and Bernstein's book himself in 1974 for $450,000.  Warner Bros. then agreed to finance the production, but only if Redford starred as Woodward.  Then the #1 star at the box office, Redford felt he needed someone equally as powerful to play opposite him, so that the film wouldn't be off-balance.  So, at a Knicks game, he went up to Hoffman and offered him the role.  Both men took their roles to heart, spending several weeks at the offices of the Washington Post, even memorizing each others' lines so that they could interrupt each other.  "President's Men" did not earn either of the men an Oscar nomination, but it did garner 8 others.  You can watch this great film instantly right now on Netflix.

Finally, how about some comedy thrown into the mix?  "Guarding Tess" from 1994, starring the wonderful Shirley MacLaine and Nicolas Cage.  Cage plays Secret Service agent Doug Chesnic who has been guarding Tess Carlisle (MacLaine), the widowed former First Lady, for years now, a "cushy" job that has him more as a servant than an agent.  Longing to get away from the maddening woman and back into the action, he begs the current president for a change of assignment over and over again, but Tess constantly blocks his requests.  However, when Tess is kidnapped, his world is flipped upside down.  It's a sweet, humorous film that earned MacLaine her 15th Golden Globe nomination.  Filmed entirely on location in Maryland, it almost had another hunky star in its mix.  George Clooney, before his "ER" days, auditioned for one line in the film...and didn't get it.  This funny film can be seen either on Netflix or Hulu.

So, be sure to be cliché this weekend, and watch plenty of movies celebrating America.  It's her birthday after all.  Have a wonderful holiday, everyone!  Be back Monday!

(Post-tidbit:  While filming "All the President's Men" in DC, Robert Redford actually stayed at the Watergate Hotel.)