A New Leaf-A movie for our economic times

Here is a movie for our times. The plot is simple. Walter Matthau plays a completely self-centered playboy totally wrapped up in his own hedonistic and material pleasures. When he is confronted with the news he is broke, he must regain his wealth by wooing a rich woman.
He latches on to Elaine May, the most nerdy, yet endearingly simple character one could imagine. She lives in a mansion with a staff of greedy, money-grubbing servants who have taken advantage of her largesse and naivety.

The dialogue is priceless and is also what makes this a good match for our economic times. After he receives the bad news about his state of financial collapse, Walter Matthau wanders around in the beginning muttering, “I’m poor, I’m poor” in a state of disbelief.

The servants later congregate gloomily as they are confronted with the new reality. “It was a good ride” they acknowledge when they realize they can no longer rip off their employer and bilk her out of everything she rightfully owns. Elaine May is the wealthy heiress at the center of the economic storm. She plays the part brilliantly and timelessly as she trips blithely through each scene unaware of her scheming lover’s nefarious plans for her demise or for that matter of any part of her economic situation.

This is a movie for our time. The economic meltdown is the embodiment of hilarious suffering that we, the American people, can relate to in this fairy tale for today. We can relate as a society to the man who ran through vast sums of money at an alarming rate with no thought of saving for the future.

As a nation, were we not like the servants in a huge mansion dependent upon the largesse of a crumbling, erratic and unmanageable employer that could bottom out and end our joy ride at any moment? And the character of Elaine May to a large extent symbolizes the inept and tunnel-vision focus that America as a whole represents. The argument for this is that we unknowingly and unwittingly create financial havoc because of our basic philosophy of living in the “horn of plenty” with no thought as to how we sustain our lifestyle and to that end, what drives the economic engine of American prosperity.

Americans should check out “A New Leaf” in a new light when next it appears on our small screens. The crisis of 08 may be over for the moment, but the basic human principles of greed, avarice, incompetence and “irrational exuberance” will be with us for the long haul

Johnny Guitar-Camp at its best/worst

Film Noir is a genre that is currently out of vogue in Hollywood. Film Noir done right can produce great cinema, and if it’s done poorly, it becomes camp. Perhaps that is why most directors don’t try many films in this style.

This weekend, Turner Classic is featuring one of the great Film Noir actors, Sterling Hayden, in a mix of camp and classic Film Noir in “Johnny Guitar” with Joan Crawford. Not too many westerns are known for the “Noir” genre, but the great Nicholas Ray (the director of “Rebel without a Cause”) tries his hand with this quirky Western.

The dialogue is camp at its best/worst, with Joan Crawford hamming it up in the lead as she carries a torch for her lost love, Johnny Guitar. There is no way to describe this movie, it just has to be seen. Perhaps not in its entirety, but speaking from experience, there are many far worse movies out there. (See my review on Bad Cinema!)

I would recommend Johnny Guitar to all lovers of camp and Film Noir. Sterling Hayden is good as the stalwart, guitar-strummin’, lady-lovin’ lead known as “Johnny Guitar.”

"Inglorious Basterds" is definitely a Tarantino film

Pulp Fiction is a groundbreaking film by any standard and is one of Quentin Tarantino’s best films. His latest, “Inglorious Basterds” is presented in much the same style as Pulp Fiction with the action being told in a series of vignettes that somehow tie it together in the end.

Although his work is uneven at times, Tarantino films usually hold the audiences interest if only to see how the peculiarities in each vignette somehow manage to weave together. This movie was billed and reviewed as a “shoot-em-up” war movie. There is a great deal of gore and one “chapter” devoted to the Basterds, but this is not a war movie. This is a Quentin Tarantino movie and those who come with an expectation of an old-style kind of war movie will be disappointed.

Most modern war movies make an anti-war statement or tell a story from a personal level of drama. This film makes a statement and a joke beginning with the fact that Nazi’s are always a parody of themselves and takes it from there.

The smaller intimate scenes in Tarantino films are my favorites. One of his best occurs in “True Romance” between two great actors: Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper. Walken is a Sicilian Mafioso type and Dennis Hopper is the father of Christian Slater who is being grilled by Walken for information about his son. The action and the conversation turns into something altogether different when the audience realizes that Hopper has just deliberately slurred Walken’s Sicilian background because he knows he is going to die and Walken starts smiling in a totally evil way that suggests he knows it too. It is an extraordinary deft scene for a director that sometimes manages to go totally over the top.

It is the small, intimate details in his movies that are the best ones. “Inglorious Basterds” is no exception. From the beginning, we see the tension built in a scene at a French farmhouse where the Nazi “Jew Hunter” talks with a farmer he suspects of harboring Jews. One of the best vignettes occurs late in the film with members of the team of “Bastards” who get caught in a verbal cat-and mouse game in a bar with a suspicious SS officer. The audience knows that the tension is building and will explode at some point, but the verbal twists and turns sometimes lead in unexpected directions.

If you liked Pulp Fiction, you will like this movie. On the other hand, if you want to see a good action adventure war movie, I would recommend renting “Kelly’s Heroes, Bridge on the River Kwai, The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, The Great Escape or The Dirty Dozen.” This movie is one part war adventure, two parts fantasy and pure Tarantino at his best. That sometimes makes for great cinema.

Top 10 Science Fiction Films of all Time

A recent online survey voted “Bladerunner” the top science-fiction film of all time. This comes as a surprise as I expected a movie like “Star Wars” (it was third), to finish in the top spot. I am always surprised when I’m in agreement with voting blocs as my taste usually runs outside of the mainstream audience.

I have never voted for “Citizen Kane”, “Gone with the Wind” or “Star Wars” in any kind of movie category denoting “best of.” This is partly an objective opinion on the moviegoer’s part, and partly because I find Citizen Kane boring and Star Wars extremely juvenile.

And although I would list the top ten “Best of” Sci-Fi movies slightly differently:
# 1: 2001; #2: Bladerunner; # 3: Close Encounters of the Third Kind; # 4: The Day the Earth Stood Still; # 5: Aliens; # 6: Terminator; # 7: Metropolis; #8: Forbidden Planet; # 9: The Road Warrior; # 10. The Empire Strikes Back; there were many films that I was glad to see in the top 100 list.

However, there were many on the list that don’t qualify in my opinion as “Science-Fiction” genre movies. The list includes comedies and some action-adventure movies and there are a few that are not high enough on the list (Sean Connery’s “Outland”) or simply not on the list at all, (Lost in Space with William Hurt, Colossus, the Forbin Project). All of the Star Trek & Star Wars movies should be on the list, Enemy Mine with Dennis Quaid and most of Jules Verne’s films, including “From the Earth to the Moon”.
Many of the Twilight Zone episodes and Outer Limits were written by some of the best science fiction writers of our time. And although Rod Serling and Harlan Ellison wrote some of the greatest science-fiction scripts of the twentieth-century; technically, these were not screenplays and could not be included in this list.

According to sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein, science-fiction is defined as “a handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.”[ Rod Serling explains that: “fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.”

Great Sci-fi movies by definition should include some suggestion or idea of future events and be made in a manner that captures the imagination. Unlike fantasy, Science Fiction must have some element of truth that is telling us not only to suspend our disbelief, but to project ourselves into a future where the fantastical could become a reality. This is the heart and soul of the science-fiction genre.

In Praise of Bad Cinema

Many years ago I wrote about really bad movies. Since that time, the list of contenders has grown but the criteria by which we judge deliciously awful films remains the same.

Number One- The plot must be non-existent or at least not relevant to the action of the movie. It helps if the actors stink up the joint but that is not a prerequisite.

Number Two-Most of the time it must have a very low-budget. Major films have been known to join the ranks, but as a rule, classically bad cinema usually is in the range from tin-foil robot hats to plastic doors and cardboard rocks.

Number Three-The gold standard to aim for is “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” The title is fairly important, and most bad movies are judged from the base camp of Director Ed Wood’s enduringly awful examples.

Number Four-Science-fiction is preferred, but other genres are always acceptable. If the film does delve into science-fiction, the science portion of the script is usually based on the merits upheld by a television show originally aired in the 1950’s.

Number Five-This is an important element. At some point in the action, the dialogue must be unknowingly funny. If the story line makes too much sense or they try to salvage a movie with a brave attempt at logical plot points, the film cannot qualify.

Tonight movie patrons around the country are being treated with a showing of the classically bad, “Plan 9 From Outer Space”. Some bad movies are just plain bad and boring to watch. The Plan 9 club for Bad B’s is in a class that is separate and apart from your typically awful movie.

Some modern nominees I have seen (over the past 20 to 30 years) are Donny & Marie’s “Goin’ Coconuts”, Snakes on a Plane, Alexander, all Chuck Norris movies, all foreign martial-arts movies, any movie with Godzilla in the title made in Japan, The Night the Lights went out in Georgia, Mad Max, Old Hercules movies, Jason & the Argonauts, the Ryan O’Neal movie, “Tough Guys Don’t Dance”, Lee Majors as a Viking in “The Norseman”, and any Paris Hilton movie.

It is important to note that in my day, we did not have the luxury of “fast-forwarding” through a movie with a button. That is cheating. The dialogue must be enjoyed or endured, however you want to look at it.

By the way, my favorite Ed Wood movie is not “Plan 9” but “Glen or Glenda.” It beats Plan 9 by a mile with the wooden dialogue & the inexplicable cuts of buffalo running across the plains, but the clincher is the man behind a desk explaining to the audience what a transvestite is and why they are different than homosexuals. It’s a hoot in any era!

What’s on TV

Portrait of Jennie: Under the heading “Nothing new under the sun” the plot for this film is basically the same as that of “The Time Travelers Wife” or it could be called, “The fantasy for males who would love to be able to give their wives the excuse, ‘Honey, I’d love to stay but I keep time traveling!!!!’

In regard to “Portrait of Jennie”, I remember loving this movie when I saw it on television years ago. I didn’t get to see the whole movie but the parts that I saw haunted me. It was a time when you used to see snippets of old films on TV and then they wouldn’t be shown again for ages. I saw “Portrait of Jennie” and remember thinking how mysterious and other-worldly the music & the plot seemed. When you watch it presented as a feature these days on Turner Classic, it looks a bit contrived but Joseph Cotton is still a great actor and Jennifer Jones is still beautiful as the mysterious and fun-loving “Jennie.” It goes to show that some movies are better than we remember and some are not as good as they seemed at the time!

“Three Godfathers” was a surprise to me. This is a John Wayne movie with a surprisingly religious overtone. If you have never seen it, I can highly recommend this one to all individuals who look for religious meaning in movies. The plot involves three men who come upon a wagon train where a dying woman has given birth. Thus, the three men are ‘godfathers” to an infant they must keep alive in a hostile environment. Of course, this is a Western that involves Indians and John Wayne, but this movie also has a message of redemption that is somewhat out of the ordinary from most shoot-em-up John Wayne films.

Julie & Julia

This is a movie with many facets. One of them happens to be about food. For all of the “food-ista’s” out there judging the merits of the cook’s ability to chop onions or the presentation of the dishes served, I believe you’re stretching it. This is a movie about working to make your dreams come true, creating joy in life and working hard to accomplish your goals. It is in the context of food, in the case of these two women, but it could serve as a metaphor for sports or art or business.

The food critic that reviewed the movie was satisfied in a snobby way with the food presentation. But if the purpose of the film was to show budding chefs the correct way to chop an onion, it would be a documentary now wouldn’t it? Sometimes the people who nitpick about films are trying to make a point the hard way, as they say in Vegas. This is a film for food lovers, for film lovers and for young and old alike.

One critic suggested that perhaps they could have added a scene where the two women met in a dream sequence. Yes, that could happen and it frequently does in many bad-b movies. But this is not the type of film where aficionados of bad acting and schmaltzy plots should congregate.

I would recommend “Julie & Julia” to most women and certain men who appreciate things like good acting with interesting characters. Food critics will like it too, if they manage to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours (plus!) That is about the time it takes to see a good flick these days.