Who Put the ‘Pop’ in Pavarroti?

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HOW THE WORLD’S GREATEST TENOR
BECAME ITS BEST-LOVED CULTURAL ICON

Luciano Pavarotti (photo nightafternight.blogs.com)

Luciano Pavarotti. Say it with me: “Lu-cia-no Pa-va-rotti.” Even his name flows trippingly off the tongue. Ah, to be blessed with his wonderful talent! I could go on for hours about the art of one of the world’s greatest tenors. I’ve decided instead to let the subject speak for himself — or, in Pavarotti’s case, sing — although there will be a fair amount of discoursing along the way.

You see, I have a personal stake in this overview of the life and career of the late Italian tenor, in that my own passion for opera evolved just as Pavarotti was coming to prominence in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Although I never saw him on stage, I have heard and seen many of his performances on the radio and through recordings and television. But make no mistake: Luciano Pavarotti was a fabulously talented pop star and much admired — and imitated — opera singer of the first rank.

But how could that be? How could a balding, six-foot-tall, 300-pound-plus, middle-aged male with a scraggly beard, emoting in a strange, impenetrable tongue, reach the absolute pinnacle of international super-stardom? Surely Pavarotti wasn’t the first classically-trained artist to have crossed over into the pop realm, nor would he be the last. He was just the most famous. But how did he do it? I hope to be able to answer that question.

Elixir of Love

Let’s begin by discussing Donizetti’s 1832 comic opera, L’Elisir d’Amore or “The Elixir of Love” — specifically the second act aria, “Una furtiva lagrima” (“A furtive tear”), sung by the lead character Nemorino. This was the perfect part for Pavarotti. In fact, it was one of his best stage roles: that of a naïve young farmer, a country bumpkin-type — not too bright but not too dumb, either — from the sticks of la bella Italia, much like the great man himself.

To convey Nemorino’s shyness, Luciano used his enormous bulk to his advantage in generating sympathy for this fellow. With superb comic timing, he played the character straight, as a big, warmhearted teddy bear of a guy hopelessly in love with Adina, the most popular girl in town. (He would pick the most popular girl as the object of his affection!)

Near the middle of the act, the eligible lasses of the village all crowd around a stunned and clueless Nemorino. Unbeknown to our hero, his rich uncle has just died and left him a small fortune — which explains the female throng’s sudden interest in him. Nemorino thinks his attraction has something to do with the magic elixir he recently purchased from a traveling quack doctor (in reality, it’s a cheap bottle of Bordeaux wine). But as the girls shamelessly flirt about him, Nemorino catches sight of Adina gazing sadly over her shoulder. Out of the corner of her eye, he sees a tear well up and run down her face.

With this, the poor man is left alone to muse over what he’s just witnessed. Finally he cries out, “Ah, she loves me, yes, she loves me. I see it now. Oh, heaven, if I could die right now I would not ask for more.”

Pavarotti wrings every ounce of pathos from this piece. His easygoing demeanor, crystal-clear diction, and unforced delivery are perfect examples of what is termed bel canto, or “beautiful singing,” at its best, a style once popular in nineteenth-century opera that became the essence of this tenor’s art.

Needless to say, Nemorino wins the day (and the girl), and all ends happily for them. Indeed, Pavarotti earned repeated praise for this part every time he performed it — and with good reason.

Rise to Fame

The story of Luciano Pavarotti’s rise to international renown is very much the story of Italian opera and song, and of American mass culture and crossover entertainment, as we’ve come to accept it, from the 1970s onward.

During his long professional career Pavarotti sang most everything an Italian tenor could conceivably sing, and a whole lot more besides: from the intricate bel canto masterworks, to his rare forays into Mozart territory; from the major roles of the master Verdi, to the best of the Puccini repertoire. With one notable exception (Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment), he sang almost exclusively in his native Italian.

On the debit side, Luciano tackled lead parts he probably had no business attempting in the first place — for example, Verdi’s Otello, in an ill-fated outing with the Chicago Symphony; the same composer’s Don Carlo, for which he was roundly booed at Milan’s La Scala Opera; Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, works that were much too heavy for his naturally lyric tone, while studiously avoiding more rewarding roles he undoubtedly would have excelled in, in particular Gounod’s Faust and Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots.

He appeared on numerous late-night talk shows, in dozens of magazine ads and TV commercials — most famously for American Express. “Do you know me?” was the catchphrase at the time; after that well-placed marketing ploy aired in prime time, who didn’t know who Luciano was?

He sang on the radio and in live television broadcasts, recorded a variety of operas and song recitals, in addition to giving numerous charity benefits, wherein he shared the limelight with such iconic pop figures as Sting, Bono, Elton John, Michael Bolton, Cyndi Lauper, Eric Clapton, Andrea Bocelli, Zucchero, and many, many others.

Yes, Giorgio (photo soundtrack.ecrater.com)

He even tried breaking into mainstream Hollywood with the 1982 feature Yes, Giorgio, a bold move engineered by his then-manager and brain-trust, Herbert Breslin, a part allegedly “tailor-made” for the tenor’s talents.

What was so unusual about that? Why, from the early silent and sound periods to the postwar boom era, and beyond, many of opera’s stellar attractions have tried to make a go at a motion picture career: remember Geraldine Farrar, Lawrence Tibbett, and Grace Moore? How about Lily Pons, Lauritz Melchior, Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald, Risë Stevens, and Ezio Pinza?

The most memorable of them all was Mario Lanza, whose volcanic personality, temperamental “prima donna” antics, and huge box-office drawing power Pavarotti soon began to emulate — for better and (usually) for worse.

Upon seeing the finished product, most critics and reviewers shook their heads in disbelief at the banality of Yes, Giorgio: “No, Luciano,” was the negative cry, as they scolded him in unison for his efforts. The film was supposed to have mirrored the happy-go-lucky, jet-set lifestyle of a famous opera star (talk about typecasting!), who falls in love with a throat specialist (actress Kathryn Harrold) after almost losing his voice.

About the only thing this bomb lost was the studio’s money. As a result, it turned out to be the biggest flop of Pavarotti’s 40+-year career. Still, whatever Luciano did for his art, and wherever he went, the fans were sure to follow. Like an Italian Pied Piper, Pavarotti set the standard for performing in the most exotic of locales, becoming the very model of a modern, major opera star of his day: from the concert hall to the sporting arena, he always gave them their money’s worth, whether it was at New York’s Great Lawn and Madison Square Garden, or London’s Hyde Park; the Baths at Caracalla, Paris’ Eiffel Tower, or Beijing’s Forbidden City.

Speaking of Beijing, it was said that while en route to that distant, faraway land Pavarotti took along entire sets of cooking utensils, pots, pans, fresh fruits and vegetables, all sorts of meat and an untold number of homemade dishes, all on the unsubstantiated rumor of how miserable the eating and living conditions were there. After a while, most of the food had to be thrown away. A pity!

Notwithstanding the constant travel, the temper tantrums, the petty jealousies and feuds among rivals, and the pressures of a classical-music career — oh, and don’t forget the occasional fling with the ladies — Luciano’s voice held up remarkably well under the circumstances, and usually rang out with its customary brilliance and warmth, especially in its highest reaches. Not for nothing was he crowned, “King of the High C’s,” by journalists.

Three Tenors Franchise

While not a particularly large instrument per se, it possessed the requisite carrying power and “ping” needed to be heard in the farthest reaches of the auditorium. He had no trouble at all being heard at Caracalla, what with all the microphones and camera equipment lying about, when, in July of 1990, on the eve of the World Cup Soccer Finals in Rome, The Three Tenors franchise was formally launched.

This was a financially lucrative endeavor that paired the “King” with his two main rivals: the Spanish-born Plácido Domingo and younger colleague José Carreras. It was Carreras who, after recovering from a five-year battle with cancer, hit upon the innovative idea of doing a benefit concert for his leukemia foundation.

With a billion and a half viewers worldwide, it was the most-watched classical-music program in history. In addition, the subsequent compact disc made of the much-hyped media event became the best-selling classical album of all time. Bravo, Luciano!

This desire to branch out into uncharted vocal waters (and be all-things to all-people) was characteristic of Pavarotti’s eagerness to please his public, as well as to satisfy his own conscious need to be adored — this, despite the tenor’s repeated assurances that he was only trying to bring the operatic art form to the vast, untapped masses longing to hear the master sing.

It’s safe to say that no artist since the great Enrico Caruso had done more to popularize Italian opera and song than Luciano had, with Lanza running a close second.

Many suspected that, at this point in his career, he was only in it for the money. John von Rhein, music critic for the Chicago Tribune, put the matter into perspective with the following assertion: “When [Pavarotti] extended his trademark white handkerchief to the legions of enraptured fans who packed his concerts, it seemed as if he were embracing the world, assuring every listener he was singing just for them. He drank in their fervent applause as if it were mother’s milk.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Humble Origins

For all his fame and notoriety, near or away from the concert platform, the charismatic primo tenore did not start out in life with the notion of conquering the world of grand opera. Oh, no. In fact, it’s almost a cliché to say that he came from real life, humble origins.

He was born in the Northern Italian city of Modena, on October 12, 1935 — Columbus Day, to be exact, a national holiday. He would later serve as Grand Marshall for New York’s Columbus Day Parade, leading the procession on horseback and draped in his country’s national flag.

Pavarotti (photo Fayer Wien)

His father, Fernando, was a baker by profession, who sang in the town’s amateur choral group. He was blessed with a high, resonant voice, which many in the city came to believe found its way to his son, Luciano’s, golden throat. Pavarotti at first trained as an elementary school teacher before settling upon a full-time singing career. Like any red-blooded, Italian native son, he loved soccer and harbored an unfulfilled ambition of one day becoming a professional athlete.

When that failed to materialize — no doubt due to his inability to turn away generous helpings of the local cuisine — he turned instead to selling insurance to make ends meet, before taking up his musical studies with former tenor Arrigo Pola in his hometown, then moving on to vocal coach Ettore Campogalliani, who also taught his childhood friend, the soprano Mirella Freni.

Pavarotti’s professional stage debut occurred on April 29, 1961, as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème, at the Teatro Reggio Emilia. This was a good choice for the tenor, in that he continued to rely on this role as his frequent calling card and “good luck” piece throughout the early portion of his career.

The opera itself is a paean to young love. It follows the time-tested, tried-and-true formula of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl — girl dies. As cartoon character Bugs Bunny once astutely observed, “Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?” One of Puccini’s own librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa, characterized the melodious four-act work as, “All poetry and no plot, while Tosca,” the opera that immediately followed Bohème, “is all plot and no poetry.” There’s a great deal of truth to that statement.

Nevertheless, it was good enough to serve as the premiere showcase for the first of the Live From the Met series of telecasts, broadcast on Public Television, in March 1977, which Pavarotti played a historic part in. A trivia note: more people watched La Bohème on TV that one night than had seen the opera on stage in the entirety of its 80-year existence — so much for the power of the medium.

This little tidbit of information was not lost on Luciano, who made a conscious effort thereafter to use television and the infant CD and home video market to advance his newfound celebrity status — a wise move on his part.

Before that groundbreaking event took shape, he had taken the lovesick poet Rodolfo all over the operatic world. Most of his initial appearances in Europe, South America, and the U.S. were in this one role, including his official Metropolitan Opera debut, on November 23, 1968 — coincidentally, within a few short weeks of a certain Señor Plácido Domingo’s first appearances there. These two supremely gifted individuals would go on to form a friendly rivalry of sorts — well, not always so friendly.

Boy Gets High on C

Getting back to Bohème, where most tenors ran aground in this challenging work, due to its high-lying vocal range, Pavarotti wallowed in it: his voice opens up gloriously the higher up it goes. A good illustration of this is the aria, “Che gelida manina” (“Your little hand so cold”). At its climax, Luciano takes a full-voiced high C easily and quite comfortably, holding on to the note for dear life but with enough breath left over to complete the phrase.

Listen to how Rodolfo, the “boy” in this case, manages to convey his romantic sentiments to Mimì, the “girl,” in such a heartfelt, straightforward, and unassuming manner. The technique employed is known as parlando, or “speaking” the lines of the piece, and is as much a part of the tenor’s own natural way with words as it was the composer’s exceptional ear for expressing everyday conversation in song.

But as good as it was, Pavarotti made an even bigger splash over at London’s Covent Garden, and especially at the Metropolitan Opera House, in the 1972 production of The Daughter of the Regiment, the one with the nine high C’s. Try doing that on a regular basis!

In his tell-all book, The King and I, manager Herbert Breslin noted that, as physically big as Luciano was back then — and he only got bigger over time — he was still able to cavort about the stage with complete abandon. Dressed up to resemble an enormous toy soldier, he was as engaging “in character” as he was out of it.

He had to do something to stand out from the crowd. He was, after all, competing against a veritable who’s-who of opera’s biggest and brightest talents. Two of the very best, Australian soprano Joan Sutherland, his co-star in Daughter of the Regiment, and her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge, along with mezzo Marilyn Horne and soprano Beverly Sills, formed the major contingent of the bel canto revival at the Met and elsewhere.

It was around 1965, during a fourteen-week “down under” tour of Australia, that Pavarotti started to make a name for himself by his close association with the couple. Legend has it they were enticed not only by his beautiful sound, but by his imposing height: being close to six-feet herself (in her high-heel shoes, of course) Dame Joan was tired of tenors a foot shorter than she was. She wanted a partner who could stare down into her eyes instead of up into her neck. She took one look at Luciano, and he was hired on the spot.

It’s a shame he didn’t stick with bel canto, though, for he was such a natural fit for that long dormant form. Instead, he opted to branch out into more accessible projects in order to accommodate the vast majority of patrons still clamoring to see him.

That’s not to say he did not meet with continued success in his chosen field. Quite the contrary, he became a winning interpreter of the Verdi canon — most notably, as the womanizing Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto; the kindhearted Gustavo in Un Ballo in Maschera; the heroic Manrico in Il Trovatore, which, if memory serves me, has a few forceful high C’s of its own; and the title character in Ernani.

His most frequent assignment after Rodolfo and Nemorino was that of the painter Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “shabby little shocker,” Tosca. He not only repeated it a total of 60 times at the Met alone, he made all his farewell appearances in it, the last of which took place on March 13, 2004.

Pavarotti (photo poet-in-residence.blogspot.com)

That date was the unfortunate culmination of the final phase of his once illustrious career, the so-called era of self-indulgence: that of the cork-died hair and painted-on eyebrows; the inability, or just plain laziness, to learn new roles; the last-minute cancellations; the struggles with his weight; the heavy use of cue cards to bolster his faulty memory; the highly publicized battles with ex-wife Adua; the marriage to his former secretary Nicoletta, a woman 35 years his junior; the assorted physical ailments, that took their inevitable toll on his health and well-being, ending in knee and hip replacement surgery; and so on, and so forth.

As Rodolfo once marked the beginning of his good fortune, Cavaradossi now marked the end of it, most presciently at Lyric Opera of Chicago: in 1989, after canceling over half of his scheduled appearances there, the tenor was dropped from the cast, as well as being declared persona non grata at the house, a bad omen indeed. Pavarotti took it all in stride, commenting afterwards, “I was as unlucky for Chicago as Chicago was for me.”

End of the Rainbow

He tried doing it again, at the Metropolitan of all places, in a series of benefit performances penciled in for May 2002. The role? You guessed it: Cavaradossi. His excuse? The common cold, only this time the Met’s management had an ace up its sleeve: they had secretly flown in their latest tenor discovery, the 33-year-old Sicilian sensation, Salvatore Licitra (who passed away himself, on September 5, 2011, from a tragic motorcycle accident), in case Luciano decided to cancel the engagement.

True to form, Pavarotti pulled out, and the local press had a field day with news of the non-event: “Fat Man Won’t Sing,” went the headlines! Diving for cover went the Met’s general manager, Joseph Volpe. Two years later, both Volpe and the Fat Man agreed to make peace with each other, as Luciano finally sang his last in the role that got him into all the trouble in the first place: Cavaradossi!

Only now, because of the physical limitations imposed on his movements, his late-career re-assumptions of the role were fairly static ones. Whatever the director, producer, or prompter, had in mind for the singer to do, photographs from that period show an all-but immovable Pavarotti practically glued to the furniture.

He was helped, to and fro, by numerous “unseen” hands throughout; in Act II of the opera, where Cavaradossi is arrested, brought in, questioned, then tortured in an adjoining room, it seemed easy for the tenor to get away with being carried about the stage by an army of able-bodied assistants — it was all part of the show, wasn’t it?

As Cavaradossi in Tosca (photo mp3lemon.org)

In the last act, however, Cavaradossi is awaiting his execution by firing squad. He reminisces about seeing Tosca for the last time and bids farewell to his love in the melancholy air, “E lucevan le stelle” (“And the stars were brightly shining”).

The most telling aspect of his reverie is the last line: “And never have I loved life so much!” We could say the same about Pavarotti: in spite of all that he had been through those last years, never had he loved his life as much as he did then.

On September 6, 2007, a golden voice was silenced forever, as the sad news was transmitted over the world’s airwaves: tenor Luciano Pavarotti, at age 71, had passed away from complications brought on by pancreatic cancer. We mourned his death, but celebrated his life. He won our hearts and moved us with his talent and charm; his joie de vivre and embrace of all humanity; his virtues and his faults; his triumphs and his failures.

In the 1982 film Yes, Giorgio, surely a failure of titanic proportions if ever there was one, Pavarotti ended the flick with what was later to become his signature tune, the aria “Nessun dorma” (“No one shall sleep”) from the opera Turandot, Puccini’s last, unfinished masterpiece.

The story goes that, at the opera’s gala premiere at La Scala, conductor Arturo Toscanini, a personal friend of the composer — and no slouch himself when it came to promoting classical music in this country — upon reaching the point in the drama that Puccini stopped writing, turned to the audience and said, in a voice choked with emotion: “It was here that the Maestro laid down his pen.”

It seems appropriate now that we finish this account of the life and career of Luciano Pavarotti with Prince Calàf’s heroic song of triumph, the final phrases of which ring out, in rising tones: “Vincerò! Vincerò!” – “I shall win! I shall succeed!” And you know what? I believe he did.

So who put the “pop” in Pavarotti? He did, of course, by just being himself. And how did the world’s greatest tenor become its best-loved cultural icon? By doing the thing he loved best: by singing everything and everywhere. He truly was all-things to all-people. And the best thing to happen to the art of Italian song since pizza. ♫

Copyright (c) 2010 by Josmar F. Lopes

Blast from the Past — Blockbuster Video, or What Movie Do I Rent Today?

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Courtesy blockbuster.com

Remember Blockbuster Video? How popular it used to be (until the company filed for bankruptcy)? I sure do. Some fifteen or more years ago I found myself in one of their stores, wanting to rent some movies for a long weekend. I just wanted to rent a few films that my wife and I could watch in one sitting. Nothing too noisy or violent or upsetting, you understand, just entertaining and relaxing — and with a good, solid story. You know what I mean? A nice, easy to take, family-type movie.

Going to Blockbuster was always the same. My routine when I got there was to say to myself, “What movie do I rent today?” Then I’d walk around the aisles for an hour and a half, usually looking at what there was that I hadn’t seen yet, but would like to rent.

I stepped into the store lo these many moons ago and started to do my bit. First stop was the Latest Releases section. Oh hey, there’s Pulp Fiction. I hadn’t seen that one yet. I’d love to rent that. But what’s this? They’re all out! Every single copy has been rented out. How’s that possible? This store must’ve had thirty-something copies of this one movie alone. It’s definitely not your average neighborhood video emporium, that’s for sure. So how could every single copy be out at the same time? You mean to tell me that thirty other people had the same idea I had, to rent Pulp Fiction on a lazy Saturday afternoon? Why couldn’t they rent something else? Better yet, why couldn’t I rent something else?

That’s a good idea. Pulp Fiction is too violent anyway. All those guns and killings and brains and all… My wife would kill me if I brought that home.

Let’s see. What else is there to rent? Hmm, lot’s of Sharon Stone and Madonna movies over here. Madonna? Nah, too much cleavage… Sharon Stone? Nope. Too much Sharon Stone, period! All right, let’s see what else we have here… Wow, look at this! A whole bunch of Anthony Hopkins movies I haven’t viewed. What a brilliant actor he is! His movies are great, and they all have Emma Thompson on the cover. Talk about safe sex, she’s married to that other great actor, what’s his name, that Shakespearean fellow… Uh, Ken, Ken… Kenneth Branagh. Yeah. That’s it. Oh, he’s fantastic. I saw him in Henry V, Dead Again and Hamlet. He’s terrific.

Hey, wait a minute. Wasn’t he in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? You know, the Robert de Niro version? Man, I hated that film, so bloody and gory. Yuck! Branagh’s good, but he’s no Anthony Hopkins. Oh, pardon me, Sir Anthony Hopkins… And aren’t Ken and Emma divorced now anyway? At least, that’s what I saw on Entertainment Tonight. Well, if it’s on Entertainment Tonight, then it’s got to true, right? Scratch Ken and Emma off my list.

Here’s an Anthony Hopkins flick without Emma Thompson that I haven’t rented yet: Shadowlands, directed by Richard Attenborough and co-starring Debra Winger. Yeah, I heard about this film. Hopkins plays the famous British author C.S. Lewis, the one who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia stories. Wasn’t he an atheist or agnostic or something? And in the film, doesn’t he marry this American poet, Winger, who teaches him to love life and God? And then she dies? Man, why is it that every movie Debra Winger appears in she dies? Didn’t she die in Terms of Endearment, after putting up with her pain-in-the-neck mother Shirley MacLaine and philandering husband Jeff Daniels for two-and-a-half hours? What a movie life she must have! Anyway, Shadowlands sounds awfully depressing, but at least it got good reviews. I think I’ll take a chance with it. Nice, easy family-type movie.

That’s one feature down. Maybe I should get one more film in case this one bombs. Most people do that, you know. It’s called insurance. You know something? I haven’t seen a good black-and-white picture in a good long time. I’ll rent one of those for a change. Good thinking. Let’s go over to the Classic Dramas section and see what’s available there.

Well, well, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable. Now that’s more like it. I’m sure I’ll find something neat here. Hey, will you look at that! The Fountainhead, based on Ayn Rand’s bestseller about an idealistic architect. I’ve been dying to see that film in just about forever. Every time it was on TV my dad would change the channel. He wanted to see war pictures with John Wayne. And he hated John Wayne. Now why would he do that…?

Well, I like this cast — Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey — all class acts. Let’s see, Robert Douglas and Kent Smith are in it, too. Kent Smith? Who the hell is that? Oh, yeah, now I remember. He was in Cat People. Or was it The Leopard Man? Well, anyway, it was definitely a movie with felines. Ugh, that guy gives me the creeps… At least the director King Vidor’s pretty good. He did War and Peace with Audrey Hepburn. And Audrey’s “in” right now, what with Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady being released on video. Say, I just finished taking a writing course. It would definitely be worth my while to rent something literary for a change.

Well, what’s wrong with renting Breakfast at Tiffany’s? For one thing I already saw it, and for another I simply hated it. Too damn talky! Maybe The Fountainhead will be better. Still, I can’t see that quintessential cowpoke Cooper playing an urban architect. He’s the strong and silent type. Maybe he plays a strong and silent-type architect… Yeah, that makes sense. They don’t do a lot of talking at all, architects, do they? What with all those blueprints and building plans and such. They’re strictly numbers guys, sort of like accountants with T-squares: nice, easy and safe. Yeah! Great casting, King! I think I’ll rent that. Now I’m all set for these two great films. Can’t wait to get to my apartment and see them!

I paid my rental fee and went straight home with my movies. The first one I popped in was The Fountainhead. Great score by Max Steiner. Lush photography and sets — very art deco. Okay, what else is there? Oh yeah, the plot. Something about a struggling young architect who refuses to conform to others’ ideas and only wants to create artworks for himself. Hmm, sounds too cerebral to me. Let’s see if this turkey picks up when Patricia Neal comes into the scene.

And there she is! At last! Wow, what a looker she was, too! I seem to recall that a few years later she had a terrible, debilitating stroke that left her unable to talk. Her husband at the time, Roald Dahl, helped regain her speech after years of intensive therapy.

Say, this is getting pretty literary, isn’t it? I mean, Roald Dahl was another famous children’s book writer, wasn’t he? Didn’t he write Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? See? I knew renting this thing was going to be good for me.

Patricia Neal & Gary Cooper (altfg.com)

All right, there’s Neal again, and she’s pining for Cooper. Jeez, this movie’s a mess, especially the scene where Neal catches a glimpse of Cooper in a marble quarry pit with this humongous jackhammer in his hands. Now there’s a Freudian slip! That scene left nothing to the imagination. You’d have to be blind not to read what was on Neal’s mind after that one.

She keeps on thinking about Cooper with that ridiculous jackhammer, pummeling away on some piece of marble somewhere in that stupid quarry pit, when suddenly, there he is, dashing in through her open window. Neal’s dressed for the kill, but why is she running away from Coop? Didn’t she want him to grab and kiss the hell out of her? Isn’t that why she left the window open in the first place?? Didn’t the screenwriters bother to read their own script???

Cripes, what a scene! No wonder my dad changed the channel. I would have, too. Well, it’s too late now. Boy, what else does this movie have besides phallic symbols? And let’s not forget Neal’s four-poster bed — heck, I’m really surprised that jackhammer scene got through the censors, what with rampant prudery ruling the day back then. Not like our open-minded, liberal attitudes of today, right? Makes me glad my kids aren’t around to see this. I’d have sent them to bed without brushing their teeth, I would.

After almost two hours of interminable torture, second lead Raymond Massey — the Citizen Kane-like, big-city newspaper mogul — blows his brains out in his big-city office, while Patricia Neal boards an elevator to the top of the tallest building in Manhattan to meet her lover-boy, urban-cowboy architect Gary Cooper, who waits for her as she rides up, up, up to the sky, ever higher, higher, and HIGHER. The End.

Whew, and thank goodness. Two thumbs way down for that effort. I’m glad I didn’t buy that movie. I’d probably have asked Visa to credit my account. And what happened to the strong and silent-type architect? He couldn’t stop talking. Talked all through the damn picture. Talk, talk, talk. Yup, he sure did. Not Gary’s’ best role, I’d have to say.

So what’s next on my agenda? Ah, yes, Shadowlands. But that’ll have to wait for later tonight. I’ll see it with my wife after supper, a hot shower, and a nice shave.

I can’t go wrong with good ole Sir Anthony, right? I mean, he’s an excellent actor and all. Every movie he’s been in has been great. No profanity, no violence, no phallic symbols. They’re all nice, easy family-type films, and… Hey, hold on a minute. I just remembered something: didn’t he play that horrible character in the movie The Silence of the Lambs? The guy who ate people’s livers with fava beans, and then washed them down with a good chi-an-ti? What was his name in that one?

Anthony Hopkins (classicblanca.blogspot.com)

Wasn’t it Hannibal the… CANNIBAL…??? ¤

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

Mariza, Teresa, Marisa –Three Singers, Two Continents, One Love for Brazilian Culture

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Mariza (uniontheater.wisc.edu)
Mariza (uniontheater.wisc.edu)

Pretend you are about to take an essay exam and are getting ready to answer the following question: what do Portuguese fado, Italian opera, and Música Popular Brasileira have in common? Give up? Many people would too. But think about it for a moment. Outside of the fact they’re all separate and distinct music styles, each with its own specific method of interpretation and delivery, what have these various genres given the world if not a wealth of extremely talented and versatile performers?

In this piece, the focus will be on the successful careers of three of the most talented and versatile of these performers (only one of whom, by the way, is Brazilian by birth). They have dedicated their lives to incorporating aspects of the above entertainment areas. All share an unbounded admiration for Brazil’s music and culture, which they have wisely chosen to express in their own distinguishing manner.

Mariza (photo kimmelcenter.org)

Neither Fish nor Fado

Her arms were extended outward, as if in gentle supplication to restless audience members to lend an attentive ear toward her wistful song.  The look was both haughty and proud, the attitude one of openness and warmth, with a touch of simpatia tossed in. Her bearing was unwaveringly regal yet becoming of one whose build is so lean and slender. There was also the unmistakable air of the diva about her.

It must have been the classic profile, the protruding chin, the dark complexion, and the magnificent blonde coiffure, its many endless and fascinating curls, like those of a face on an ancient Aegean vase, all intricately woven into unbroken lines across her faultlessly-formed features.

Suddenly, the hallowed name of Maria Callas sprang to mind. While remembering the faded kinescopes of the once celebrated star of La Scala and other international opera houses, I was reminded of Portuguese singer Mariza’s striking resemblance to the immortal La Divina — and to the Divine One’s searing intensity and command of the operatic stage.

In interviews granted throughout 2003, given concurrently with the release of her second album Fado Curvo (Times Square Records), the Lusitanian songstress, born Mariza dos Reis Nunes in Mozambique but raised in the Mouraria section of Lisbon, cited the revered Greek-American soprano Callas and her illustrious countrywoman, Amália Rodrigues, as pervasive influences on her own individualized take on contemporary fado.

Having seen Mariza perform live and in concert on the campus of North Carolina State University’s Stewart Theatre, I can wholeheartedly agree. Though not strictly a Brazilian entertainment form, nor remotely related to traditional Western ideals of the operatic, this freely emotive and soulful style of singing has been with us for nearly two and a half centuries — much longer, in fact, than any of the standard repertory items of masters Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini combined.

Most of all, there’s something grandly theatrical about the art itself — the hand gestures, the facial expressions, the song structures, the lyric flights of poetic fancy — that has lately transformed fado into a worthy successor to the almost-absent stage presentations of opera in Brazil’s own artistic firmament.

Mariza on stage
Mariza on stage

Mariza’s devout following knows, too, that years before her recent world-music conquests, the rebellious future stage figure had visited Rio de Janeiro, the “holy shrine” of Carnival, where, as inevitable as the Copacabana tide, she became infatuated with the soothing sounds of samba and bossa nova, only to return to her adopted land as an invaluable dispenser of its native song collection.

“I was looking for something when I went to Brazil. I had to do that to come back to my first love. But what I was looking for was in front of my nose all the time and I was the only one who couldn’t see it.”

The search for one’s true calling in the entertainment field can be an excruciatingly nerve-wracking venture for any performing artist, let alone one of Mariza’s standing and repute. Relief came in the satisfaction she gleaned from having to face up to the style’s built-in challenges.

Fado is an emotional kind of music,” she proclaimed, “full of passion, sorrow, jealousy, grief, and often satire… I just want to sing.” And that she does well enough – particularly, on the darkly sentimental opening numbers, “O silêncio da guitarra” (“The Silence of the Guitar”) and “Cavaleiro monge” (“Monk Rider”), and the exuberantly festive “Feira de Castro” (“The Fair at Castro”).

While leaning more towards tradition for her first album, Fado em Mim (“Fado in Me”), Mariza took a much freer approach to Fado Curvo, finding both refinement and nuance in the piano-and-cello accompaniment of “Retrato” (“Portrait”) and a softer pop side for “O Deserto,” before ending on a passionate note with “Os anéis do meu cabelo” (“Curls of My Hair”), a semi-autobiographical piece.

Having gone about as far as a modern fadista could go in her profession, she decided to stretch herself even further by joining forces with acclaimed carioca-born arranger, musician, and producer Jaques Morelenbaum, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, for her third go-around with the musical genre: the 2005 release of Transparente, also for Times Square Records.

Mariza flew all the way down to Morelenbaum’s hometown of Rio, “Because,” she pointed out later, Jaques’ “entire working environment is in Brazil.” With that, the exotic-looking entertainer confirmed to the UK’s FLY magazine that she “didn’t do anything [for two months] but thinking, working, and singing on this new album. I woke up every morning and waited for the hour to start working. I was able to achieve a greater intimacy, not only with music but with poetry as well… It was very good for me. Besides having the chance to meet and work with new musicians, it helped me to concentrate completely on my new album.”

A veteran of several-hundred studio sessions, Jaques Morelenbaum has concentrated his own efforts on assisting quite a number of professionals with their recording projects — and with some of their live performances as well. Among the most notable are Antonio Carlos Jobim, Egberto Gismonti, Gal Costa, Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, David Byrne, Marisa Monte, and Carlinhos Brown, not to mention his work with directors Walter Salles Jr. and Gerald Thomas. This was exactly the kind of Brazilian connection Mariza was hoping for in her next musical venture.

“I’m very fond of Brazilian rhythms, such as bossa nova, Vinicius de Moraes, Elis Regina [and] Caetano Veloso,” she told interviewer Petr Dorůžka of the Website Free Music. “I already knew Jaques had worked with Caetano and [Japanese composer] Ryuichi Sakamoto. We met in music festivals in Portugal and abroad. I’ve always wanted to work with him. I spoke to my record company and they liked the idea. I suggested it to Mr. Morelenbaum and he returned to my suggestion with all possible dates. I’ve always thought that doing it would help me to reach the sonority I was looking for.”

For the BBC, Mariza delved further into her nation’s musical distinctiveness: “I am looking for fado from a different perspective, because I now travel a lot… I am starting to find that this music that belongs to Lisbon, to Portuguese people, is starting to feel more and more universal. It speaks about universal feelings. Each country interprets it in its own way. We are crossing cultural lines now. And I feel so proud about it.”

Taking into account the end result, she divulged to Free Music that, “When I listen to this album I feel my fado, my sound. Jaques Morelenbaum uses all musical instruments in a magical way, with lots of care. He was the producer for this record; he understood me.”

We, too, understand what Mariza was striving for, and where her aspirations currently lie: right now, they’re with her dynamic vision of fado. Fortunately for her fans, she’s left one foot dangling in the doorstep of the pop-music world, which is as it should be.

“I listen to all kind of music, as long as it’s good. But I have to confess, I have my preferences: Maria Callas, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, Sting. Like everywhere we do have international pop artists in the charts, but there’s good music being done in Portugal, like Rui Veloso, Carlos do Carmo, Jorge Palma. To name a few.”

That’s too few to please the masses. But on her own, Mariza has had no problem doing just that.

Lisbon Story and Well Beyond

It seems the fado standard has been placed in exceptionally capable hands with Mariza. Other contemporary practitioners of the form, such as Cristina Branco, Aldina Duarte, Kátia Guerreiro, Mísia, and Dulce Pontes, continue to hold up their end by keeping the flame of fado’s essence alive.

While popular within their own country’s confines, they have yet to command the attention of outside audiences the way Mariza has, or to reach out beyond the borders of Lisbon’s famed Alfama district, the scene of numerous triumphs from Portugal’s past.

Teresa Salguiero (por7gal.com)

One Portuguese artist who did reach out beyond Lisboa, and whose face and voice outside audiences have clearly grown accustomed to over the years, is the lovely Teresa Salgueiro, the former lead singer for the group Madredeus.

Their music, which some critics have labeled as cloying and pretentious, comprises elements of traditional fado with touches of folk, tango, New Age, world-beat, Middle Eastern, flamenco, and other sources factored in. True to his family’s surname (which, in English, is rendered as Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who first circumnavigated the globe), guitarist, musician, and producer Pedro Ayres Magalhães, one of the group’s founding members, is the individual most responsible for its wide-ranging repertoire.

Fado is sung in the first person… telling sentimental stories,” Magalhães explained in a 1995 interview with New York Times writer Alan Riding. “Our themes are as universal as possible, talking about feelings, life and death,” a statement that convincingly supports the conclusion Mariza eventually came to reach.

When you listen to one of Madredeus’ carefully-concocted creations — O Espírito da Paz (“The Spirit of Peace,” EMI, 1994), for instance, or their 2000 compilation Antologia (Metro Blue) — you experience an atmosphere of calmness blanketed against a soundscape of six-string Spanish guitars; mixed with harmonically absorbing accordion flourishes grounded firmly by the cello’s deep-bass fullness; punctuated intermittently by synthesized keyboards, originally programmed by Rodrigo Leão, the other founding member, and later by Carlos Maria Trindade, the producer and piano player on Mariza’s Fado Curvo.

The real standout, however, is Teresa’s elegant soprano tone, the vocals of which well up from the center position. In Portuguese, the name Salgueiro means “willow” (as in “weeping willow”). It’s a sound that, in reviewer Imre Szeman’s poetic construct, “combines earthly desire and cosmic awe, material longing and transcendental hope, and which settles over you like a state of grace.”

The urge to hold back one’s tears, then, is diminished amid the gentle sweep of her voice — delicate, supple, and ethereal — as it passes over you in soft, undulating currents. There are but a handful of performers that can do this to a person. Teresa Salgueiro happens to be one of them.

In the late 1980s, while still a teenager, Salgueiro was discovered working as a singer in a Lisbon bar by Magalhães and Leão, who asked her to join their newly formed band of five. Impressed by their sound, she agreed to increase the number to six by becoming the group’s only female member. “A gift of nature,” Magalhães conceded. “It was strange to find someone who is 17 who sings with [such] joy and with the same timbre and vigor as the voices people remember hearing in Portugal.” Not for nothing was she billed as the number one “pretender” to the great Amália Rodrgues’ fado throne.

Resultantly, Madredeus was lifted to local prominence during an especially fertile period for world music, where the ethnic diversity of such artists as The Chieftains, Enya, The Gipsy Kings, Youssou N’Dour, and Yanni was much celebrated and highly in vogue. The presence of someone as young as Salgueiro only added to the formula. Even so, the group remained stubbornly peninsular-bound.

Teresa Salgueiro
Teresa Salgueiro

It was German filmmaker Wim Wenders who eventually rescued Teresa and her band-mates from anonymity. Wenders was so taken with their work that he used several of Madredeus’ songs to accompany Salgueiro’s soft-spoken screen persona in his 1994 movie Lisbon Story (Viagem a Lisboa). “I wanted to film them as they performed,” the director asserted to Alan Riding. “They were playing with such pleasure, such intensity, and integrity; and Teresa’s voice filled the small space with so much emotion that I felt a shiver running down my spine.”

Their compelling soundtrack (entitled Ainda, or “Still”) was rushed into production in order to fill the skyrocketing demand for the group’s music. By then, Teresa’s disarming and totally un-self-conscious portrayal of herself, pitted against Wenders’ cinematic alter ego, actor Rudiger Vogler, became a winning combination with viewers. The film went on to do for present-day Lisbon what Black Orpheus had done for Rio in its sixties heyday.

From there Madredeus toured all over Europe, as well as Africa, Asia, the United States, and South America. During a yearlong 2006 sabbatical, Salgueiro resolved to strike out on her own, eventually reemerging as a well-regarded soloist in São Paulo for a January 2007 series of performances at the Golden Cross Jazz Club (formerly Tom Jazz) in the high-profile neighborhood of Higienópolis.

The concerts were held to commemorate her recently concluded EMI project, Você e Eu (“You and Me”). As ambitious a recorded undertaking as any in recent years, the CD showcased the entire spectrum of Brazilian popular song, beginning with the thirties and forties, the so-called “golden age” of samba and choro; moving up to the prime bossa nova period of the 1950s and 1960s; right down to the chart toppers of the mid-1970s.

Included were such classics as “Marambaia,” a lively number often associated with Elis Regina; “Na Baixa do Sapateiro” (“Bahia”) and “Pra machucar meu coração” (“To Wound My Heart”) by the ever-popular Ary Barroso; “O samba da minha terra” (“My Country’s Samba”) and “Saudade de Bahia,” both by the late Dorival Caymmi; Luiz Bonfá’s lilting “Samba de Orfeu” from the movie Black Orpheus; the beautiful “Se todos fossem iguais a você” (“Someone to Light Up My Life”) from Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes’ inaugural Orfeu da Conceição collaboration; a smattering of Jobim’s best work with other wordsmiths (“Estrada do sol,” “Inútil passagem,” “Triste,” and “Meditation”); and concluding with Chico Buarque’s prize-winning “A banda” from 1966.

The best that could be said about Salgueiro’s attempts at this more pop-driven burst of song is that she excelled brilliantly in the fast numbers. A side-by-side comparison with the late singer-actress Carmen Miranda, who was herself of Portuguese extraction, left little doubt as to her rhythmic capabilities and care for note values. Teresa covered herself in glory on the lightning-quick “Marambaia” and on Jobim’s gossamer work, “Chovendo na roseira” (“Double Rainbow”).

But she may have wandered too far from her fado roots — a codfish out of salt water, most likely — in the slower-paced bossa nova items. Here, her thick native-born accent became more of an actual hindrance than an obvious advantage. The dissimilar vowel sounds of her Lusitanian ancestry clashed with the more-rounded demands of the title tune, written by Vinicius with Carlos Lyra; or the highly literate “Insensatez” (“How Insensitive”), one of master Jobim’s loveliest incantations, done to flawless perfection by him and Frank Sinatra nearly four decades prior.

What was the motivating force behind this amalgam of musical styles? “Você e Eu symbolizes the encounter of a Portuguese singer with the music and musicians of Brazil,” Salgueiro explained to the Mundo Lusiada Website, “a partnership and a communication built through music; above all, [it is] the acknowledgement of our collective individuality before the individuality of the other, the joy of having a dialogue and the willingness to make this encounter possible.”

There has always been some degree of hesitation among fellow Brazilians as to whether or not they will admit to a fondness for their mother country’s music. In this case, however, there can be no question of a certain singer’s unrestrained ardor for Brazil’s melodic inventions.

“Ever since I was a child,” she remembered fondly, “I loved to hear the sound of the Portuguese language in Brazilian music, and early on I admired and followed their interpreters, their authors, and their composers.”

Nonplussed by her detractors, Salgueiro insisted these songs were “[m]elodies that have always captivated me with their beauty and sophistication, words that have enchanted me by the power of their images and their ability to evoke so much simplicity, always close to the popular vernacular, the poetry of longing and of love.”

The album’s final tally, a formidable 22 tracks in all, posed a monumental challenge for any pop stylist, then and now. But for Teresa Salgueiro it was an especially noteworthy endeavor, one she greeted with her habitual graciousness and aplomb. “Finally, we can live this experience for the first time directly with the public… I am grateful to [pianist, arranger, and musical director] João Cristal for teaching me to sing these songs and sincerely hope to share this happiness with many more people.”

On the heals of her successful live solo work — held over for several nights by popular demand — can there be any chance that Teresa will get back together with her old fado crowd? The answer appears in the credits for Você e Eu: listed as executive producer of the album, in addition to its head of mastering and art direction, is the leader and co-founder of Madredeus, composer-lyricist Pedro Ayres Magalhães. Burning her artistic bridges is definitely not a part of Salgueiro’s lounge act.

“A Great Little Noise”

For all their novelty and fame, Teresa Salgueiro and Mariza both represent, in their own specialized manner, the modern views of an already established, older order. Between them, however, they’ve developed certain undeniable traits. Some of the more familiar include a finely honed (if somewhat flamboyant, in Mariza’s case) fashion sense, an appealing voice, an attractive and outsized stage presence, an artist’s innate sense of what the public wants, business and financial smarts, and the big theatrical gesture.

As a yardstick for superior vocal ability, big theatrical gestures (in the form of graceful arm and hand movements) are the stock-in-trade as well of another, better-known Marisa: MPB singer, producer, arranger, songwriter, and Tribalista, the Rio-born Marisa Monte.

Marisa Monte (iTunes.apple.com)

In an October 2002 interview for Brazzil magazine’s music editor Bruce Gilman, Marisa revealed, quite offhandedly, the real reason behind the spontaneous use of her upper extremities in many of the artist’s live presentations.

“They’re the kind of gestures that I make when I’m talking. Really, I talk a lot with my hands. It’s funny because… in some songs my hands are attached to the guitar, and I really miss moving them. It’s like a suspension of my expression. Moving my arms and hands is something that really helps me to sing and to communicate a song’s meaning.”

Whatever it took, for the past 20 years Marisa Monte has been communicating many a song’s meaning not only through sweeping hand gestures but also via her superb singing voice and stunning good looks on stage. Today she stands as one of Brazil’s most dependable musical exponents, a full-blown example of the heterogeneous nature of talent.

“I’ve never started from the premise that my music is this or that,” she made known in a 2006 New York Times article. “Even for me, it’s difficult to pick a label. People don’t know if I’m pop or something else. The labels never last long anyway, because at any moment it becomes easy for me to destroy all the theories.”

Guitarist and musician Arto Lindsay, who has presided over several of Marisa’s recorded entrees, referred to her as a person of wide taste, “but also very mainstream. One of the secrets of her success is that she has really popular taste, and so is very honest about doing what she does and looking for the best from every genre.”

The possessor of an obviously open and gifted mind-set as well, the carioca native let Gilman in on some of her “secrets” with a purposely winding back-story involving her own artistic coming of age: “When I was eighteen, I went to Italy to study opera, which gave me the opportunity to study the repertoire and to live outside Brazil awhile. But after living in Italy for a year, I began to see Brazil with different eyes.

“For the first time, I could see how rich, original, and unique Brazilian music is in relation to the rest of the world. I saw myself a long way from home and realized how hard it was going to be to put aside all the cultural weight, the density of my background. Never before had I felt so Brazilian.

Marisa Monte (Photo: Julio Juarez, 2006)
Marisa Monte (Photo: Julio Juarez, 2006)

“To escape my background, to forget all the culture that had been implanted since birth, I would have had to live outside of Brazil for the rest of my life. I also knew it was going to be very difficult for me to put aside modern production techniques.

“And since opera is something that is turned more toward the past, I could see clearly how, for me, it was more important to be in Brazil than to be singing opera in Italy. So I came back when I was nineteen. I had been receiving invitations to record pop music in Brazil since I was sixteen, but studying in Europe was just a way of taking enough time to find my way, to decide what I really wanted.”

By her own calculation, Marisa has recounted this thrice-familiar tale “millions” of times, including at least once to her colleague and friend, producer Arto Lindsay. “And I am sure I’ll keep telling it forever,” she chuckled. “Even if I write it down, it’s not the same as hearing it in my unique voice.”

Ah, yes, that “unique voice.” Gilman has praised its “extraordinary dexterity,” “a mezzo-soprano, warm in timbre and unbelievably flexible,” blessed with “a wider sweep of coloration on all ranges than most voices in contemporary Brazilian pop.”

“Silvery and liquid,” raved Times reporter Larry Rohter, “it glides, flutters and skips above her songs with a delicacy that invites listeners to relax and enjoy the ride.” Mr. Lindsay alluded to Marisa’s “work ethic” and “beauty that matches her voice,” along with applauding her interest in Brazilian and Portuguese literature and her “understanding of the way pop art works.”

“For me, it’s all art,” she responded. “I’m interested in what’s going on in other artistic expressions as a reference for what I’m doing. And I like to talk to people from other cultural areas because I think it’s interesting to compare the process of creation, the concepts in the works, and to exchange these kinds of feelings and ways of production.”

By way of example, she has surrounded herself with an impressive lineup of individuals with “other artistic expressions”: Carlinhos Brown and Arnaldo Antunes, Nando Reis and David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Laurie Anderson, Bernie Worrell and Philip Glass. But the first to unlock the possibilities may have been her longtime supporter, journalist, songwriter, and television and music producer Nelson Motta — not quite the haute voix of the avant-garde, but an astute judge of latent talent nonetheless.

Here, in an extract from his Noites Tropicais: Solos, Improvisos e Memórias Musicais (“Tropical Nights: Solos, Improvisations, and Musical Memories”), are Motta’s earliest recollections of the fast-rising nineteen-year-old sensation:

“What I saw and heard gave me the vivid impression of being before a real talent. And more: of a strong scenic personality, of a youngster with an optimal musical culture and superb taste in repertoire… And an obsessive desire to learn, to better herself, and to grow. It wasn’t just her ambition to cut a record, to play on the radio, or to become a pop star. She wanted to be a stage singer, much like the lyric singers of old; and the recordings, if they materialized, would be a secondary natural consequence of all that; because she believed that great music happened live – with all of its risk-taking, lack of a safety net, and short-lived moments – just like in the theater and the opera world.”

Her adolescent idol was the soprano Maria Callas — one of those “lyric singers of old” that, by sheer coincidence, was the same role model that inspired her namesake, fadista Mariza, to take the artistic plunge. Her link to Velha Guarda (“The Old Guard”) da Portela Samba School of Rio, from where her knowledge of Carnival and samba must have derived, proved invaluable to her development as a performer. (It helped that her father Carlos had once been cultural director for the group.)

What about all those recordings that were expected to have materialized from her stage success? Not to worry. Unlike many artists who issue album after album of mindless filler, Marisa has spent much of her free time in thoughtful contemplation as to what exactly to leave behind for posterity.

To date she’s recorded a grand total of eight solo albums and one group effort — not very impressive numbers in themselves, but hardly second-rate studio fodder either. Her first, MM (World Pacific) from 1989, was a live performance based on an early TV special. If anything, it set the tone for what was to become her signature eclecticism.

The songs were drawn from all quarters, and highlighted the work of a contemporary rock band, an Italian pop-rock artist, a purveyor of Brazilian soul, and a psychedelic group from the seventies, along with a few standard-issue set pieces from different time periods, the most memorable of which was a version of the Motown classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (Strong and Whitfield), as well as tracks that paid tribute to Carmen Miranda, George and Ira Gershwin, and Kurt Weill.

Despite its one-word title, her second album Mais (World Pacific, 1991) did not feature “more” of the same, but took a different turn in that she co-wrote many of the numbers with ex-Titãs partners Reis and Antunes. A cover of Caetano Veloso’s “De noite na cama” (“At Night In Bed”) and selections from sambistas Cartola and Pixinguinha, in addition to an item by a gentleman identified only as Nordestino, rounded out the program.

She continued along this line for her next major outing, the improbably christened Verde, Anil, Amarelo, Cor de Rosa e Carvão (Blue Note, 1994), marketed in the U.S. under the banner Green, Blue, Yellow, Rose and Charcoal. The guest list for this super-production read like a name-dropper’s guide to the musical galaxy, i.e., Gilberto Gil, Carlinhos Brown, Celso Fonseca, Paulinho da Viola, Velha Guarda da Portela, Messrs. Glass and Worrell, Romero Lubambo, Fred Hammond, and so forth. It was perhaps Marisa’s biggest seller abroad.

Her subsequent work, Barulhinho Bom (“A Great Little Noise,” EMI, 1996), a double-compact disc combination of live performances and studio proficiency, solidified her pop-music credentials; in fact, it went above and beyond anything she had done before. From that point, extensive touring, the presenting of more and elaborate stage shows, playing on and producing albums by other artists — even the creation of the record label Phonomotor for the purpose of preserving her own projects — took precedence over domestic bliss.

Nevertheless, two more releases followed. Memórias, Crônicas e Declarações de Amor – “Memories, Chronicles and Declarations of Love” (Blue Note, 2000), was a title that seemed lifted from Mr. Motta’s recently published reminiscences. It won a Latin Grammy Award for Best Pop Album in 2001. Topping even that envious honor, the 2002 launch of Tribalistas on Phonomotor, with fellow participants Carlinhos Brown and Arnaldo Antunes, hit Number Twelve on the Billboard charts, earning generous Grammy notices and winning one for Best Brazilian Contemporary Pop Album.

Marisa Monte (cenasocial.com.br)
Marisa Monte (cenasocial.com.br)

Not until she became pregnant with her son did Marisa take some needed time off. Following a three-year hiatus, she came back, fully charged, in 2006 with two back-to-back albums of mostly new material by her and Tribalista band members Brown and Antunes, Universo ao Meu Redor (“Universe All Around Me”) and Infinito Particular, both for EMI. With a little help from some old friends (Adriana Calcanhotto, Caetano Veloso, Jaques Morelenbaum, Eumir Deodato, João Donato, Paulinho da Viola, Philip Glass, and Daniel Jobim), these works turned out to be winners as well.

Marisa herself took a more proactive role in their production, exemplified by her mastering of some rather exotic instrumentation. Many of those she used, such as the auto-harp, melodica, kalimba, metaphone, cajon, vocoder, baixo, cowbells, and reco-reco, sounded suspiciously like leftovers from a discarded Uakti session. Even computerized electronics were no barrier to her experimentation.

“I love manipulating the sound of everything. You can create new instruments that don’t exist or new tonalities for traditional instruments. Plus, the mixture of the pure sound with the processed sound is really cool.”

Nelson Motta was right about a lot of things. Mostly, he was spot-on concerning his former protégée’s having the patience and self-discipline to take her musical ambitions to Valhalla-like heights. Of course, Marisa has never been content to stay within predictable parameters — and, as far as we can tell, no safety net was ever extended for this peerless risk-taker, either.

Turning once more toward the past, if she had lived during the early part of the twentieth century Marisa would surely have raised the bar for the likes of Rosa Ponselle, Geraldine Farrar, Maria Jeritza, Claudia Muzio, Lina Cavalieri, and other prima donnas of their ilk. And that’s no small feat, since they were all true operatic superstars of the very first order, renowned as much for the beauty of their voices as for their fabulous looks on stage.

In the breadth and scope of their knowledge, however, they would be no match for our modern-day diva. Why, back in the day she might even have forced them into some type of early retirement, or taken over at a moment’s notice. That’s soooo like the theater and opera world, isn’t it? A world and a culture Marisa Monte has yet to completely escape from. ◊

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘You Must Remember This’ — The Films You Can’t Resist

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Hello, movie fans! Here’s a second list of my favorite (and not so favorite) films — many of them acknowledged cinema classics by any definition of the term and, as the title of my post suggests, memorable in their own ways. Let me know your views and thoughts on this list, which is in semi-alphabetical order. Happy reading!

Olivia de Havilland & Errol Flynn (emerdelac.wordpress.com)

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Though filmed in the “wilds” of the California hills and originally conceived as a vehicle for movie tough-guy James Cagney, this classic version of the story of Robin Hood and his merry band of thieves is grand movie-making at its finest. It proved a box-office bonanza for the Warner Brothers studio at a time when the hounds of war were yapping at the heels of Europe, with many of the predominantly British and/or UK cast sensing the difficulties their fellow countrymen abroad were about to undergo. As a result, there are superb performances from just about every member of the group, especially the excellent Robin Hood of the youthful and athletic Errol Flynn, who was never better in green tights. Olivia de Havilland, in her third pairing with the swashbuckling Flynn, is the lovely Lady Marian, Claude Rains the slightly effete but thoroughly malevolent Prince John, and Basil Rathbone the slimy scoundrel Sir Guy of Gisbourne — and a fairly decent swordsman, at that. With yeoman work provided by Melville Cooper as the phlegmatic Sheriff of Nottingham, boisterous Alan Hale in a repeat of his earlier silent stint as Little John (he was to assume the role one last time in 1950’s Sword of Sherwood Forest), bullfrog-voiced Eugene Pallette as the rotund Friar Tuck, and Una O’Connor, Herbert Mundin, Patric Knowles, Ian Hunter (a model King Richard), Montagu Love, Lionel Belmore, and many others in fine support. Exquisitely scored by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, for which he won a deserved Oscar. It’s possibly the closest Korngold came to his concept of “opera without words.” Directed with flair and gusto by Michael Curtiz and second unit director William Keighley, whom Curtiz later replaced. Perfect family entertainment and lavishly filmed in early three-strip Technicolor. For adventure and romance, it has never been topped. Remade many times, with Richard Todd, John Derek, Richard Greene, Sean Connery, and, in recent times, Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes, and Russell Crowe taking turns as Robin.

Amadeus (1984)

Barbara Byrne, Elizabeth Berridge, Tom Hulce, Christine Ebersole, F. Murray Abraham (thesingingcritic.blogspot.com)

Peter Shaffer adapted his successful stage play for the screen, both opening up and expanding the drama along the way. The basic fiction of Antonio Salieri’s murder of his rival Mozart is retained, but it’s the locale (filmed in Prague), the richly elegant eighteenth-century costumes, and the charismatic performances that give this film its vibrant life, in addition to the master’s heavenly music, performed on the soundtrack by Sir Neville Marriner. Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus (Latin for “To love God”) Mozart, precocious and scatological — well documented in his voluminous correspondence with his wife, father and sister — was a true and undeniable genius of his or any other time. A prolific composer, he dabbled in just about every conceivable musical form; produced works of astonishing range, beauty and originality; and achieved worldwide fame and recognition in his short life. On the other hand, the Italian-born Antonio Salieri was a fairly run-of-the-mill mediocrity who wrote innumerable pieces for the church and the theater, almost none of which have survived into the modern classical repertoire. F. Murray Abraham was catapulted into the front ranks of lead actors with his fascinating, multi-layered portrayal of the jealous court composer Salieri, helped in large measure by the superb makeup job of veteran Dick Smith. Tom Hulce is the vulgar, potty-mouthed, maniacally cackling but ever-so-charming “Wolfie,” a finely detailed achievement, with Elizabeth Berridge as his klutzy lower-class spouse, Constanze. Hulce and Berridge’s distinctive Americanness is wisely exploited by Czech director Milos Forman as a counterpoint to the highbrow snobbery of the snooty types that populate the backstabbing royal court of Austrian Emperor Joseph II, played with a haughty air of self-confidence (and boundless good humor) by the wonderful Jeffrey Jones. The other cast members include Simon Callow (a noted author in real life, who played Mozart on the British stage), Roy Dotrice (as Leopold Mozart), Patrick Hines, Charles Kay, Christine Ebersole, Vincent Schiavelli, Kenneth MacMillan (in an amusing bit restored for the expanded director’s cut), Barbara Byrne, and Kenny Baker (R2-D2 of the Star Wars series) in a “small” role. The movie narrowly misses a four-star rating, as the play was much more concentrated on the stage and is shorn of some of its lovely literary language due to the different requirements of the film medium. In addition, it takes extensive liberties with the perception and presentation of Mozart’s operas that distort their true historical nature and significance. Other than that, it’s a fabulous showcase for classical-music lovers. (Too many notes, indeed!)

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Spencer Tracy & Ernest Borgnine (GoneMovie.com)
Spencer Tracy & Ernest Borgnine (GoneMovie.com)

Western ambience, Western atmosphere, Western attitude — but wait! It’s not a Western at all, but a reasonable facsimile of a film noir that takes place in broad daylight (now there’s a novelty for you). Clearly, opposites attract in this case. And talk about having a bad day, each one of this movie’s denizens experiences what can only be described as a less than fulfilling sojourn. John Sturges, the director, had slaved away on Hollywood B-pictures for nearly a decade before rising to prominence with this brief but tightly concentrated, highly suspenseful thriller. This was Sturges’ second foray with Tracy (their first was the formula courtroom drama, The People Against O’Hara), who initially declined to participate in the production. However, he quickly changed his mind, once he got wind that film noir icon Alan Ladd was willing to do the picture if Tracy wasn’t. Bad Day at Black Rock turned out to be Tracy’s final screen appearance for MGM — indeed, a bad day for MGM! The story takes place in the aptly titled Black Rock (it was filmed in Lone Pine and Alabama Hills, California, near the Sierra Nevada mountains), a frontier dustbowl dwelling at the end of World War II, where a mysterious one-armed stranger’s sudden presence and polite inquiries into a Japanese-American named Komoko are met with antagonism and suspicion from the local townsfolk. The stranger’s probing and the hostile reactions of the citizenry ultimately turn the atmosphere of this sleepy, redneck ghost town topsy-turvy. Spencer Tracy plays John Macreedy, the laconic loner, who can take extremely good care of himself (he has a mean karate chop). Robert Ryan is Reno Smith, the town’s mover, shaker and resident mischief-maker, as well as all-around bad apple. He’s got the townspeople tied around his little pinky, or so he believes. When things start to unravel around him, Smith lashes out aggressively, much like a cornered mongrel. The always excellent Ryan and a taciturn Tracy shine in this one; they go toe-to-toe in verbal discourses that define one another’s characters in understated ways (the screenplay is by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman, from a story by Howard Breslin). Our “modern action movies” can take a lesson from these two worthy pros in how to convey craftiness and subtlety through looks and glances alone. The “action” aspects are expertly handled in a real-world manner by Tracy and the mean-as-a-junkyard-dog duo of Lee Marvin and eternal fall-guy, Ernest Borgnine. A haggard Dean Jagger is the alcoholic sheriff with a permanent hangover (and guilty conscience) over what happened to Komoko. Featuring John Ericson and Anne Francis (who starred together in the short-lived TV-series Honey West), with Walter Brennan, Russell Collins and Walter Sande, all good in Sturges’ first major Hollywood hit. It’s a rather slow starter, but stick with it — you’ll be amply rewarded for your patience. Superb widescreen photography by William C. Mellor. The deep, dark secret everybody wants to avoid discussing concerns a fallen comrade of Japanese descent who saved Tracy’s life; he wants to pay respect to his dead buddy by returning the hero’s medal to his father, Komoko. Andre Previn wrote the powerful score. This film was a springboard to Sturges’ later string of all-male ensemble efforts, most notably Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963), all three of these actioners high-level macho-escapist fare at their feverish best.

Ben-Hur (1959)

Stephen Boyd & Charlton Heston (classiccinemagold.com)

Of all the religious widescreen Hollywood epics released in the fifties and early sixties, this sound version of General Lew Wallace’s “Tale of the Christ” is the most revered. And for good reason: it boasts a marvelous international cast, impressive life-size sets, beautiful location shooting, and that awesome chariot race near the end. Oh, and don’t forget a major miracle or two! Charlton Heston is at his jaw-clenching, agonizing best as the long-suffering Judah Ben-Hur (Academy Award for Best Actor). How he manages to confront and overcome the various challenges posed to him by his rival Messala is the major thrust of the drama. The excellent Stephen Boyd is on a par with Heston as a magnificent Messala, the very embodiment of raw Roman ambition. Despite revisionist claims of homosexual vibes between these two characters, Judah and Messala are merely fiercely competitive boyhood chums. They have differing ethno-political views that interfere with their childhood friendship — and that inevitably lead to conflict and tragedy. It’s strictly a man’s world, however, with the only minor flaw being the limited, stilted roles for the women, particularly Israeli actress Haya Harareet as Esther. Judah’s Roman love-interest Flavia, played by Marina Berti, was all-but cut from the final release print; the loss is regrettable, as she would have given Heston’s driven character a personal dimension and added layer of warmth. She appears briefly in the scene where Quintus Arrius (solidly played by British veteran Jack Hawkins) adopts Judah as his son. The film is long but never boring. Several writers laid their hands on the screenplay, among them playwright Christopher Fry and author Gore Vidal, although the onscreen credit is given to Karl Tunberg. The direction is by William Wyler, with a fine assist from his second unit team headed by Yakima Canutt, is technically precise. He succeeds in creating a high degree of tension between the two main protagonists; credit is due him as well for sustaining interest in their feud throughout the over three-hour course they do battle in. The music by veteran Miklos Rozsa is a model for films of this type. He went on to score several more epics in a similar vein, including El Cid (also with Heston), King of Kings and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. The ending is a bit too literal, but serves as a fitting conclusion to what went on before. The movie betrays its fifties origins mostly in its treatment of Jesus, who is never seen in close-up, only in long shots and from behind. He’s played by opera tenor Claude Heater. Others in the (very) large cast include Finlay Currie, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Frank Thring, and Hugh Griffith, an Oscar-winner for his supporting role as Sheik Ilderim.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Boris Karloff (drawing Josmar Lopes)

It’s been called the greatest horror picture ever made – no faint praise for gay British film director James Whale (The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man), whose iconic monster movie this is: a first-rate, and far superior, sequel to his earlier Frankenstein from 1931. Yes, it’s sentimental in spots, even downright cloying in its manipulation of the audience’s feelings for and identification with Dr. Frankenstein’s patchwork creation; yet almost 80 years later it cannot help but wipe the floor of the competition. Played to pathetic perfection by a middle-aged Boris Karloff (The Mummy, The Black Cat), the film has been cloned and parodied by everyone from Abbott & Costello and Mel Brooks to The Rocky Horror Picture Show — often copied, but never equaled. A most satisfying viewing experience, and a right of passage for anyone seriously interested in the horror-movie genre. Colin Clive repeats his role as the restless, anxiety ridden Henry Frankenstein, who is threatened and cajoled by the eccentric Dr. Pretorius, a wild-eyed Ernest Thesiger (a fey stand-in for the director — and how he relishes those rolled “r’s”), into creating a mate for the lonely Karloff. Jack Pierce’s superb makeup job for both the Monster and his titular Bride (Elsa Lanchester, in a dual role, as author Mary Shelley as well) has passed into screen legend. Universal Studios objected to Whale’s humanization of their prize moneymaker, especially the scene of the Monster weeping as the “Ave Maria” blares forth in the background. Their subsequent entry in the series, Son of Frankenstein (1939), reverts to the Monster’s brutish nature. A pity! Expressionistic sets, bizarre shadows and camera angles, and eerily comical secondary characters – in particular, the whiny-voiced Una O’Connor and the slow-witted E.E. Clive as the village burgomaster, along with the sympathetic Blind Hermit (charmingly played by O.P. Heggie) – add up to a smashing good time for all. Terrific music score by Franz Waxman, and featuring Valerie Hobson as Elizabeth, Gavin Gordon as Lord Byron, Reginald Barlow as Hans, Mary Gordon as Hans’ wife, and the ever dependable Dwight Frye as Karl. It quite literally ends with a bang. Essential viewing.

Casablanca (1942)

Humphrey Bogart & Ingrid Bergman (chessville.com)

The once-in-a-lifetime convergence of stars, screenwriters, and actual historical events conspired to make this exercise in what would normally have been a formula B-picture into a timeless film classic, one you really can’t resist. The meeting of incongruous leads Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, the cynical owner of a popular Moroccan nightspot (and latent freedom fighter), and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund, the luminous lost object of his affection, will forever be remembered as an inspired episode in the Warner Brothers canon of wartime romances. Viennese actor Paul Henreid plays the stalwart second lead as underground resistance leader Victor Laszlo. The screenplay was by Howard Koch (the scriptwriter for Mercury Theatre’s famed “War of the Worlds” broadcast) and the twins Julius and Philip Epstein; among the many high-points are the first meeting of Rick and Ilsa, Sam’s rendition of “As Time Goes By,” the stirring singing of the Marseillaise, the highly-quotable line “Here’s looking at you kid,” and the famous finale at the airport. Others in the sturdy ensemble include Claude Rains as the dapper inspector Louis Renaud, Conrad Veidt as the nefarious Nazi Major Strasser, Peter Lorre as the repugnant Ugarte, jowly S.Z. Sakall (erroneously billed as S.K.) as Carl the headwaiter, Marcel Dalio (a real-life refugee from the Holocaust) as Emil the croupier, Leonid Kinskey as Sascha the bartender, Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari, owner of the Blue Parrot Café, and, of course, Dooley Wilson as Sam the singer-pianist, who faked his own piano playing. Many other supporting bit players from the marvelous Warner Brothers stable are scattered throughout, including Leon Belasco, Mischa Auer, Oliver Blake, Torben Meyer, William Edmunds, Madeleine LeBeau, Helmut Dantine, Joy Page, John Qualen, Ludwig Stossel, Frank Puglia, and Dan Seymour as the venerable Abdul the doorman. Directed with showmanship, flair, and a rich noir-perspective by Hungarian Michael Curtiz, and brilliantly scored by Max Steiner, who contrary to belief did not write “As Time Goes By.”

Chinatown (1974)

Jack Nicholson & Faye Dunaway (gonemovies.com)

In the same year that Paramount was touting The Godfather, Part II as a Best Picture Oscar contender, the studio was cognizant enough to release Polish-born director Roman Polanski’s brilliant crime drama Chinatown. With a masterful, Academy Award-winning screenplay (by writer Robert Towne), superb art direction (W. Stewart Campbell), and finely detailed production values (Robert Evans is credited as producer), it took the cinema world by storm; movie critics fell over themselves with high praise for the venture. That one-word title alone is enough to tell the tawdry tale of well-to-do — and well-heeled — private gumshoe J.J. Gittes (Jake to his “friends”), smartly played by Jack Nicholson, and his seemingly innocuous involvement with Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), the wife of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer for the Los Angeles Water and Power Department. After a series of red herrings, Jake unwittingly stumbles onto a deadly game of cover-up by underhanded city officials, snot-nosed (and violent) gangster types, trigger-happy country folk, and wise-cracking police officers, all of whom know a whole lot more than they’re letting on about the dirty dealings over at Water and Power. As the fabulously wealthy Noah Cross (a smarmy but outlandishly entertaining John Huston, outstanding in a secondary role) casually informs Mr. Gittes, “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.” Truer words were never spoken. Nicholson looks smashing in his immaculately tailored suits, wide-brimmed hats, and silk bathrobe (costume design by Anthea Sylbert). So’s that snazzy roadster, too, but it’s all for show. Indeed, that’s the dirty little secret of Chinatown: despite the obvious finery and ostentatious trappings of the rich and famous, the filth begins to pile up fast – a little too fast for poor Jake to keep up with. After one too many revelations, his carefully calculated world comes crashing down around him, as Jake finds himself at sea in a hum zinger of an ending, a tragic denouement of monumental (as well as Oedipal) proportions. With their masks lifted, the characters are revealed as the bizarre grotesques they’ve now become. It’s nihilism writ large, as it were. Most impressive are the camera angles, which were shot from behind Jake’s back. The feeling is of being dragged against one’s will into his unseemly realm, to see for oneself what Jake is about to discover and unravel. We’re accomplices — maybe even voyeurs — witnessing the disintegration of everything he holds dear. Everything about this classy feature, however, is top drawer, including the dynamite cast. Best of all is Nicholson’s Jake, a fellow too smart to get caught with his pants down, but too dumb to prevent it from happening anyway. Dunaway is so gorgeous to look at, and her arguments so compelling and strong, that we’re immediately taken in by her conviction — a true femme fatale in every sense, to her own detriment. Perry Lopez brings just the right touch of sarcasm mixed with disdain to his role as the harried police inspector Lt. Escobar, always one step ahead of his quarry, but wisely taking two steps back to reflect upon the situation at hand. Another major character are the physical locations themselves, which contribute mightily to the overall sense that something’s not right in this part of town (the film was mostly shot in and around the San Francisco Bay area). Also featuring John Hillerman, Richard Bakalyan, Roy Jensen, Bruce Glover, sweaty Burt Young, James Hong, Beulah Quo, Nandu Hinds as Jake’s secretary Sophie, young Diane Ladd, and Joe Mantell as Jake’s partner Walsh, who has the last word: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Polanksi appears briefly as the nasty little hood who slices Nicholson’s nose with a knife. The excellent and spare score is by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith – a gem of a composition. The film was cleverly recycled as the basis for Gore Verbinski’s animated Rango (2011), which includes a hilariously sinister take on the Noah Cross character as voiced by Ned Beatty.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Orson Welles & George Coulouris (movieimages.tripod.com)

What is there left to say about this landmark production? Nothing at the time prepared Hollywood and RKO Radio Pictures for the firestorm of controversy this classic feature generated upon its initial release. The story of the assorted problems it encountered with its plot (purportedly based on the life of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst) and subsequent distribution is well known. What we’re ultimately left with is a masterpiece of the cinematic art form, what can conservatively be termed a true collaborative effort by all concerned. It’s still amazing to learn, after all these years, how truly revolutionary this production was: the mere fact that it came out of the Hollywood dream factory of the 1930s is proof enough of its uniqueness. Theater director, writer, producer and actor Orson Welles has been given far too much credit for having single-handedly invented many of the camera angles and lighting techniques we now take for granted. In truth, he and his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, were basically following a textbook example of how to make a motion picture. They both get an A+ for effort and delivery. The marvelous script is by Welles and Herman Mankiewicz, although Orson tried to suppress that fact for years thereafter. There is so much to see, and specifically to hear, in this marvelous maiden work that multiple viewings are absolutely mandatory to fully appreciate what is cinematic storytelling at its very best. The plot has been reworked time and again, most surreptitiously by Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and, to some extent, The Godfather series. The large cast, many of them past veterans of Welles’ Mercury Theater on the Air radio program and his Federal Theater Projects, includes Dorothy Comingore, Joseph Cotten, Edward Sloane, George Coulouris, Ruth Warwick, Ray Collins, Fortunio Bonanova, Philip Van Zandt, Paul Stewart, Erskine Sanford, Gino Corrado, future film director William Alland as the inquisitive reporter, future tough-guy Alan Ladd, and young Orson himself (in a corset, no less, to hide his massive bulk). The extraordinary sound design and deep-focus photography, as well as the musical score by the untested Bernard Herrmann (in his pre-Alfred Hitchcock days), add up to an oppressive atmosphere of a life lived lavishly on the edge. The music for the pseudo-opera Salammbô, an ingeniously lyrical set piece, features many nods to classical composers Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold; although Welles had in mind the French Romantic style of Massenet’s Thaïs, but this will do.

City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold (1994)

Jon Lovitz, Daniel Stern, Billy Crystal, Jack Palance (jinni.com)

Sequel to the successful yuppies in mid-life-crisis comedy City Slickers, which also stars Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Patricia Wettig, and Jack Palance in his Oscar-winning supporting role as the laconic cattle boss Curly. They’re back, along with Jon Lovitz (replacing snippy colleague B. Kirby Jr.) as Crystal’s no-account brother. Others from the original cast show up at the end, including Josh Mostel, who’s got to be a dead ringer for Wayne Knight they look so much alike. This version has funnier set pieces than the first film, as well as a bigger part for Mr. Palance, whose acerbic asides are just as caustic. The plot is a retread of Warner Brothers’ The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in which Crystal, Stern, Lovitz, and later Palance as Curly’s twin brother Duke, go to the Nevada desert in search of a fortune in lost gold. It includes snippets of the Walter Huston dance, Crystal’s imitation of Humphrey Bogart, and scenes and music from The Godfather Part II. It’s colorfully shot on location in Moab, Utah, and the screenplay is by Crystal and the team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who’ve written several winners for director Ron Howard. As far as sequels go, this one is better than the usual scattershot continuation, and is fairly high up on the laugh meter. Mark Shaiman’s tuneful Western-style score is a shameless rip-off of Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven theme music, but it’s a fitting tribute nonetheless. There are a couple of crude jokes and bits, and Crystal engages in some comic hanky-panky with wife Wettig (who has a reduced role here) — but nothing too offensive, at least by adult standards.

Duck Soup (1933)

Zeppo, Chico, Harpo & Groucho Marx (moviesovermatter.com)

The most irreverent and irrepressible screwball comedy the Marx Brothers ever perpetrated on moviegoers — and, at slightly over an hour, their most concentrated effort at hilarity ever. Most of the jokes and routines had been perfected by the team in numerous stage appearances, and were already considered old hat by the time they were filmed. Here, they’re elevated to high art, if not high jinks. The threadbare plot, which is but a flimsy excuse for the film’s marvelous comedic high-points, involves dubious Freedonian dictator Rufus T. Firefly’s wrongheaded attempts to wage war against the neighboring Sylvania. Groucho Marx plays the easily flummoxed Firefly, with brothers Chico and Harpo serving as Sylvanian “spies,” while fellow sibling Zeppo tags along as Firefly’s male secretary. Margaret Dumont is priceless as the boys’ clueless foil, Mrs. Teasdale. Tall, aristocratic, and with a flair for fun and mischief, Louis Calhern is the Sylvanian ambassador Trintino, Raquel Torres is the slinky Spanish-style vamp, and old pro Edgar Kennedy (he of the slow burn) is the put upon lemonade vendor. Many outrageous and totally ludicrous skits (“Peanuts, getta you peanuts”) are punctuated by Groucho’s sly commentary, Chico’s fractured English, and Harpo’s silent slapstick. That coat of his yields some singularly offbeat items, to say the least. The musical sequences are pure unabashed fun (play close attention to Groucho’s entrance song — it’s a riot!) and the rousing closing number is a send-up of old vaudeville routines and minstrel shows — no offense intended. A thoroughly enjoyable romp and on most critics’ Top Ten Funniest Movies Ever Made list, this vehicle was the Brothers’ swan song for Paramount Pictures before they migrated over to MGM.

The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)

Michael Douglas, John Kani & Val Kilmer (virtual-history.com)

Based on the true story of two man-eating lions loose in the South African bush country at the turn of the century, the film stars Val Kilmer as Colonel John Patterson, unlikely cast as an Irish engineer assigned to build a bridge across the River Tsavo, and Michael Douglas as Remington, an American big-game hunter spouting rapid-fire syllogisms. They join forces to rid themselves of the beasts, whose nasty habit of eating up the local workforce is crimping the style of British railroad baron and self-styled martinet Tom Wilkinson (The Patriot, Batman Begins). Others in the cast include Henry Cele (Shaka Zulu), whose prominently chiseled features are welcome in a small role as the doomed foreman, the authoritative Bernard Hill (Titanic) as the smart-ass doctor of the camp, and mild-mannered Brian McCardie (Rob Roy) as the Scottish missionary. The usually solid and distinguished Indian actor Om Puri (City of Joy) seems at sea as a disruptive Hindu leader of the workers. The major attractions, however, are the titular lions, and the ones used in the picture are a truly fearsome and ugly-looking pair. The real-life stuffed lions responsible for all the carnage can still be seen at the Chicago Field Museum, as the narrator John Kani so informs us. He plays the stoic African guide, who has the best line in the film when he’s asked about life with his three wives. Filmed on location, it’s better than your average National Geographic special. There’s real ferocity to the beasts, it’s gorgeously photographed, and the sound design is truly spectacular; this is definite home theater demo material if there ever was one. The main roles are somewhat shallow, however, especially Douglas’ (who also produced), and the ending is as contrived as they come. It’s redeemed by the film music, which is by veteran screen composer Jerry Goldsmith, who after over forty years in the movie business still manages to surprise and please the listener. His wonderful score weaves African tribal chants, dance rhythms, and native drum beats into the seams to very good effect. Directed by Stephen Hopkins and scripted by veteran screenwriter William Goldman. The lions will certainly scare you if the acting doesn’t.

Russell Crowe in Gladiator (Allstar/Cine Text)

Gladiator (2000)

Covers similar thematic ground as Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, and is a close cinematic cousin to such films as Spartacus, Ben-Hur, Demetrius and the Gladiators, and other sword-and-sandal epics. Emperor Marcus Aurelius is about to retire and considers handing over the power reigns to popular general Maximus (“The Spaniard”). Before the emperor can do so, however, he’s murdered in true Roman dysfunctional-family tradition by his envious son Commodus, while Maximus is about to be put to the sword. He escapes, in time to find his wife and child butchered by his former mates. Sold into slavery, he manages to seek revenge by finding glory in gladiatorial combat. The film takes this basic plot point and reinterprets it as sports hero-worship, no better illustrated than in an early scene where Maximus and his troops make ready for combat. Substitute helmets and shoulder pads for shields and swords, and you have the opening play of the Super Bowl Game — complete with pep talks, back-slaps, and color commentary (all that’s missing are a couple of “high fives”). Soft-spoken Russell Crowe is fine and dandy as the brawny Maximus. He has “macho action star” scrawled all over his chest. Indeed, since then he’s gone on to appear in the far superior Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Ridley Scott’s remake of Robin Hood. Also featured are Joaquin Phoenix as the conniving Commodus, Richard Harris in the tiny role of the fragile Marcus Aurelius, Connie Nielsen (fresh from her stint as a “fiendish” attorney in The Devil’s Advocate) as Commodus’ sister Lucilla, Djimon Hounsou (a welcome presence) as the glowering gladiator Juba, and Derek Jacobi as the low-key but crafty Senator Gracchus. Oliver Reed hams it up to the hilt in his last screen appearance as the slave trader Proximo. His visage was computer-grafted onto another actor’s body after his untimely passing in mid-production. Spencer Treat Clark (Unbreakable) plays Lucilla’s precocious son Lucius, and Giorgio Cantarini (who co-starred with Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful) has a cameo as Maximus’ offspring. Directed by Ridley Scott, slightly out of his league but managing to find his way around the epic conventions well enough. Excellent CGI effects add a much-needed dimension and lift to some of the outdoor scenes, establishing Rome as a major character in itself. The score is by Hans Zimmer, one of his better ones. Jarringly photographed in a manner similar to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, i.e., a mix of slow motion, stop-action, and rapid crosscutting, with hints of a high-speed documentary style. It all comes together with some roughness around the edges, but should do much to revive the period-action flick, as evidenced by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy a year later. It owes as much to Braveheart as to Tacitus.

Glory (1989)

Matthew Broderick as Col. Robert Gould Shaw in Glory
Matthew Broderick as Col. Robert Gould Shaw in Glory

Directed by former Harvard-graduate Edward Zwick, the letters of another Harvard alumnus, those of Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick, who also provides the voiceover), a young, white Union commander in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, written to his northern abolitionist mother (Jane Alexander, unbilled), formed the basis for this inspiring portrait of gallantry and racism during the American Civil War. Other relevant sources included the novel One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment by Peter Burchard and Lincoln Kirstein’s photographic compilation, Lay This Laurel. Unlike the real-life 54th, which was made up mostly of free black men from the North, the screen regiment is comprised almost entirely of ex-slaves. Except for the presence of Shaw, his parents, and the imposing figure of author and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (Raymond St. Jacques) — two of whose sons actually signed up with and fought for the 54th — the principal participants depicted in the drama are purely fictitious. One of these fictitious creations, Trip (Denzel Washington), is flogged for having deserted his troops in the midst of their training. As it turns out, Trip was only looking for a decent pair of shoes, which the troops had been denied due to the racist tendencies of the quartermaster in charge of their supplies. Denzel’s tearful acquiescence in full view of his fellow troopers, and before his commanding officer, is one of the most powerful sequences in the movie. He and the other volunteers eventually get to display their fighting spirit and worth as soldiers in a futile and vividly realistic suicidal attack on an impregnable beach fortress off the coast of South Carolina. The hardships these men experience along the way frame the main part of the story behind the unsuccessful charge at Fort Wagner where, historically, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry lost half their men. Pride, courage, bravery, dignity and sacrifice are all touched upon in this potent war drama, a fitting tribute to the soldiers who fought and died in that vicious battle, which occurred almost simultaneously with a similar confrontation on the wide-open fields of Gettysburg. After several nominations wherein he came up empty-handed, in 1990 Denzel finally won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his personification of an angry black man railing against social injustice. The most poignant portion of the film comes when the lifeless body of Col. Shaw is unceremoniously thrown into a ditch alongside the corpse of Pvt. Trip and others of their regiment, with sea birds squealing and squawking noisily overhead. With a screenplay by Kevin Jarre and striking photography by veteran British cinematographer Freddie Francis, Glory also featured excellent performances from Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes, Andre Braugher, and Jihmi Kennedy, with Alan North, Bob Gunton, John Finn, Jay O. Sanders and Cliff De Young in other roles. The exceptionally fine and moving score by James Horner, with the welcome participation of the Boys Choir of Harlem, is one of this composer’s best remembered pieces. It’s a favorite of record collectors and sound buffs (Shawn Murphy is the sound engineer), with more than a hint of Carl Orff’s Carmina burana in its sweeping choral passages and otherworldly tonalities.

The Godfather, Part I (1972)

Salvatore Corsitto & Marlon Brando (chicagotribune.com)

“I believe in America. America has made my fortune.” So begins one of the most influential Hollywood films of the seventies, with sorrowful undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) making a desperate plea for justice in godfather Don Corleone’s inner sanctum. Francis Ford Coppola’s directing career took off like a rocket as a result of this film’s unprecedented popularity and success. It made him and Paramount Pictures a bigger fortune than either of them could ever imagine. Mario Puzo’s pulp novel The Godfather – not exactly high art or intellectually challenging as literature – came to passionate life in Coppola’s now-classic depiction of the Sicilian-American underworld (we know what he meant, even though the word “Mafia” is never uttered). Postwar America is the setting for this violent tale of Don Vito Corleone, the godfather of the title, who lords it over his crime syndicate as one of the heads of the five New York “families.” Gambling, prostitution, murder incorporated, judges in hip pockets, and nefarious bribery schemes are their life blood. But incredibly, the godfather refuses to dabble in drugs, which makes Don Corleone out to be a beggar among thieves. His unequivocal stand against dope dealing lands him in hot water with the opposing forces longing to take over his territory. Played by the legendary Marlon Brando, the Don is power personified: a lift of a finger, a cock of the head, and his slightest whim is dutifully obeyed by head enforcer Luca Brasi (former wrestler Lenny Montana). Brando won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar (he refused it, however) for his subtle, tour de force performance, even though he’s relegated to what is essentially a supporting role. Equally deserving is Al Pacino (note the fire in his eyes) as youngest son Michael. It’s been said this film is about the dark side of the American dream; while true enough in practice, the real crux of the drama (with screenplay by Coppola and Puzo) is the unquestioned devotion Michael feels towards his father, despite his distaste for dad’s work. Michael proves his love by taking over the family business after Don Corleone is seriously injured in a botched assassination attempt — perpetrated by the shifty-eyed Sollozzo (cagey Al Lettieri) — and after hot-headed brother Sonny (James Caan) is gunned down at a Long Island toll booth. So many quotable lines (“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Leave the gun, take the cannolis,” and “Never tell anyone outside the family what you’re thinking”), so many individualized portraits (i.e., Clemenza, Tessio, the Tattaglias, Apollonia, Don Tommasino, Fabrizio), it’s one of those movies that demands our undivided attention. No matter how many times you’ve seen it there are always fresh insights to be savored over: the opening trumpet solo – mournful, longing, full of untold regret; right-hand man and ex-cop Al Neri (Richard Bright), closing the door on Michael’s wife Kay (Diane Keaton); Brando’s tearful breakdown (“Look how they massacred my boy”) upon viewing the dead Sonny’s shattered features; that ironic, masterfully orchestrated finale whereby Michael wipes the slate clean of his father’s foes while standing as godfather to his sister Connie’s child; and many more. With a fine ensemble cast, including Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, Talia Shire (Coppola’s real-life sister) as Connie, John Cazale as Fredo, Richard Castellano as the fat Clemenza, Abe Vigoda (Fish in Barney Miller) as Tessio, Alex Rocco as Moe Green, and John Marley, Sterling Hayden, Richard Conte, Al Martino, Morgana King, Gianni Russo, Vito Scotti, Simonetta Stefanelli, Angelo Infanti as Fabrizio, and Gabriele Torrei (uncredited) as Enzo the nervous baker. Striking cinematography by Gordon Willis, incredibly detailed production design by Dean Tavoularis, and of course that instantly recognizable film score by Nino Rota. Need we say more?

The Godfather, Part II (1974)

Al Pacino (reelfilm.com)

At three hours and twenty minutes, it’s almost as long as Gone With The Wind, but not nearly as funny. Francis Ford Coppola’s successful continuation of Mario Puzo’s Godfather saga is more than just excessive padding: it looks backward in time to the story of orphaned Vito Andolini, who flees Sicily to come to New York at the turn of the century, winds up on Ellis Island, has his surname changed to Corleone, grows up in poverty on the Lower East Side, then marries, has a family of his own, and faces down the dreaded Don Fanucci (played in oily fashion by the formidable Gaston Moschin) to become a “respected” member of society; and forward to the new don, Michael Corleone (an intensely driven Al Pacino, never better), and his efforts to salvage his family’s Nevada holdings from the clutches of soft-spoken but ruthless gangster Hyman Roth (Actor’s Studio co-founder Lee Strasberg in his movie debut) while simultaneously confronting a traitor within his midst as well as dealing with his failed marriage to skeptical wife Kay (the returning Diane Keaton). Every scene is a comment on, and a reflection of, similar ones to be found in Part I. Outright lies, blatant betrayals, treachery, duplicity, and double- and triple-crossings galore, with enough chokings, drownings, stabbings, and garrotings to fill ten crime novels! Spellbinding direction, high production values, and a supremely talented cast make Part II that rarity of movie sequels – damned if it isn’t better than the original, in spite of more than a few lapses in narrative logic (what’s the story with those Rosato brothers, anyway?). Featuring Robert Duvall as world weary consigliere Tom Hagen, struggling to understand Michael’s secretive ways; Talia Shire as Michael’s sister Connie, who makes a spectacle of herself with new boyfriend Merle Johnson (the real name of actor Troy Donahue, as Merle) at her nephew Anthony’s first communion; John Cazale (suave, in a black mustache) as younger brother Fredo and his shady dealings with Roth’s Sicilian “messenger boy,” Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese); and the stoic Robert De Niro, excellent as young Vito Corleone, who copied Marlon Brando’s mannerisms and hoarse vocalization, while picking up an Oscar in the process. Also starring playwright Michael V. Gazzo in a winning performance as old-timer Frankie Pentangeli. Gazzo’s role was “invented” by the screenwriters due to the producers dropping Richard Castellano from the cast – his salary demands simply couldn’t be met. Instead, we have Irish-Italian actor B. Kirby Jr. as a slimmed-down version of the youthful Pete Clemenza, along with G.D. Spradlin as the garrulous Senator Geary, Richard Bright as Al Neri, Joe Spinell as Willy Cicci, and Morgana King, Leopoldo Trieste, Amerigo Tot, Fay Spain, Abe Vigoda, Gianni Russo, James Caan, the incomparable Harry Dean Stanton as an FBI man, Danny Aiello as Tony Rosato, and Peter Donat as Senator Questadt. Roger Corman puts in another of his patented “guest shots” as a member of the investigating committee looking into Michael’s Cosa Nostra connections. Gordon Willis’ dark-hued photography is back, along with Nino Rota’s lush score, supplemented in part by Carmine Coppola, the director’s father. A five-star family affair, to be certain. Would we lie to you?

The Godfather, Part III (1990)

Diane Keaton, George Hamilton & Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part III
Diane Keaton, George Hamilton & Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part III

More rambling than either of its illustrious predecessors, with new characters spilling forth by the minute and an unusual familial “relationship” to ponder over, Part III of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy is the last and least admired installment of the series. His canny exploration into the inner workings of organized crime in America, with Mafia boss Michael Corleone as the chief suspect and subject, closes the circle he started with the Oscar-winning The Godfather some 16 years prior. An older and frailer Michael Corleone (Al Pacino, in gray hair and buzz cut) tries to make good on his past pledges to go straight and legitimize his lucrative Mafia dealings. In attempting to extricate himself from the Family “business,” Michael unwisely hands over the reins of power to a ruthless street enforcer, an onerous “clotheshorse” named Joey Zasa (oleaginous Joe Mantegna). When Michael’s trigger-happy nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia) comes busting in on the action, Don Corleone takes an instant liking to this, his brother Sonny’s bastard son, but is wary of the youth’s violent temper. Further complications ensue, such as Michael’s outwardly charitable donations to and involvement with the Catholic Church, which give way to other, unforeseen repercussions within the hierarchy of that venerable institution – all the way up to the Vatican’s banker, in a thinly veiled reference to the Michele Sindona affair of the late 1970s, along with a few others. There are so many red herrings, as well as false leads and dubious plot twists, especially the romance between Vincent’s cousin, and Michael’s daughter, Mary (an amateurish performance by Coppola’s daughter Sofia, who became a noted filmmaker in her own right); along with son Anthony’s operatic aspirations and eventual debut as Turiddu in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, it all gets to be a bit much. Still, once all the machinations are finally set in motion, the inevitable grand finale (a truly operatic ending) materializes. It’s a humdinger of a conclusion, which may remind cinephiles of Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker. But that Joey Zasa is a prize characterization, thanks to the chameleon-like Mantegna. In addition to him, we get several new personalities, i.e., the crooked Don Altobello (“tall and handsome”), played by short and frumpy Eli Wallach; Franc D’Ambrosio (with a background in musical theater) as Anthony Corelone; the Irish-brogue-spouting Donal Donnelly as Archbishop Gilday, as devious a hoodlum priest as they come; silver-haired lounge lizard George Hamilton as Michael’s immaculately tailored lawyer B.J. Harrison; former middleweight boxing champion Vito Antuofermo as Zasa’s bodyguard Anthony “The Ant” Squigliaro; and veteran thespian Raf Vallone as an exceptionally impressive Cardinal Lamberto, who hears Michael’s guilt-ridden confession, which happens to be the movie’s emotional highpoint. Of the numerous returnees, Diane Keaton is her low-key self as Michael’s ex-wife Kay, whom he reconciles with during the course of the drama; sullen Talia Shire (Coppola’s sister) as the widowed Connie, who totes a suspect box of cannolis to the opera; Richard Bright is a much heavier Al Neri; singer Al Martino appears as singer Johnny Fontane; Gabriele Torrei is Enzo the baker (the nervous fellow who tried to light his cigarette in the first Godfather); and Jeannie Linero as Lucy Mancini, Vincent’s mother. Directed by Coppola in high-flung fashion, with the peerless cinematography of Gordon Willis, production design by Dean Tavoularis, art direction by Alex Tavoularis, and musical direction by Carmine Coppola, Francis’ father. It may surprise fans that this picture was mostly filmed in Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, also used by Martin Scorsese for his Gangs of New York. It’s not the masterpiece that everyone wanted or expected from Francis, but a worthy pretender nonetheless. Do yourself a favor and see it, if only to have your curiosity sated as to how this whole Godfather thing gets sorted out.

Gone With the Wind (1939)

Vivien Leigh & Clark Gable in GWTW
Vivien Leigh & Clark Gable in GWTW

It’s hard to fathom that Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling fictional novel, Gone With the Wind, was practically an unwanted property in Hollywood. No studio head would get near a Civil War story, let alone adapt one for the screen. For years Tinsel Town touted the widely-held notion (perpetuated by MGM boy wonder, Irving Thalberg) that “No Civil War picture ever made a nickel!” That boast would forever be put to rest when producer David O. Selznick, who was Louis B. Mayer’s son-in-law, purchased the rights to Atlanta native Ms. Mitchell’s thousand-page tome. The result was a box-office juggernaut that went on to break all existing records. As heavy as Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, the book GWTW (as it is customarily abbreviated) can be described as the American version of Leo Tolstoy’s massive historical epic War and Peace. The comparison is not at all a stretch, for both works take place during intensely turbulent periods of immensely significant change for their respective eras. For starters, Mitchell concentrated on the character of Katie Scarlett (originally Pansy) O’Hara, a lively spitfire of a Southern belle who uses large dollops of charm, guile and willful behavior (along with a ruthless capacity for survival) to overcome any number of obstacles, both to her person and to her beloved Tara. But what relation does Scarlett have to Natasha Rostova, the heroine of Tolstoy’s novel? Quite a lot and more than meets the eye! It was as if GSTW’s author had merged the personality of Natasha’s cousin, the mild-mannered Sonya (the mirror image of a Melanie Hamilton), with that of Scarlett herself, then had her pine away for the cerebral Pierre Bezukhov (standing in for poetic dreamer Ashley Wilkes), while spending the bulk of the story’s plot on the sordid lives of the buxom Helene Kuragina (another side of Scarlett’s capricious nature) and her dashing lover Dolukhov, who safely incorporates multiple aspects of Rhett Butler. We may add another viable connection: the invading Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte with that of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. These contrasts may one day serve as the thesis for a more extensive study along the same lines. But for now, let it suffice that the three-hour-and forty-minute screen adaptation of Gone With the Wind is itself a masterpiece of narrative filmmaking. Overlooking the literary merits and deficits of its script (credited to Sidney Howard, who died before the film was released) or the cavalier treatment of the slavery issue, as well as its muddled political views, GWTW represents the highpoint of Hollywood storytelling at its starriest. Contrary to belief, wise-cracking Clark Gable (in the role of a lifetime) was not exactly a shoe-in for Rhett Butler. Also considered were such marquee names as Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn. Selznick knew that Gable was right for the part, but he was loath to haggle with his wily father-in-law over his employment. Mayer drove a hard bargain in allowing Gable, then under contract to MGM, the opportunity to star in Selznick’s mammoth production. A deal was finally struck between the two moguls whereby Selznick would obtain Gable’s services in exchange for MGM getting the distribution rights. With literally a cast of thousands, some of the other key players involved were Leslie Howard as Ashley, Olivia de Havilland as Melanie, Laura Hope Crews as Aunt Pittypat, Hattie McDaniel (an Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress) as Mammy, Butterfly McQueen as housemaid Prissy, Thomas Mitchell as Gerald O’Hara, Harry Davenport as Dr. Meade, Ona Munson as Belle Watling, and Victor Jory, Isabel Jewell, Rand Brooks, Carroll Nye, Oscar Polk, Eddie Anderson, Ward Bond, Irving Bacon, Louis Jean Heydt, and many other walk-ons, cameos and bit participants, including stuntman Yakima Canutt. Directed initially by George Cukor, who was fired and replaced by Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz), with some scenes, quite possibly, helmed by Sam Wood and even Selznick himself, all attention rightly belongs to Vivien Leigh as Miss Scarlett. The celebrated and well-publicized search for the elusive Scarlett is the stuff of movie legend, leading up to Selznick and his brother, Myron’s, unique choice of Ms. Leigh (born in Darjeeling, British-India) for the challenging role. Among the vast field of contenders and aspirants vying for the same part were Bette Davis, Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward, Miriam Hopkins, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, Lana Turner, Alicia Rhett and Lucille Ball. In hindsight, of those mentioned Leigh was the only actress who measured up to Mitchell’s vivid description of the green-eyed, sweet-faced, yet “lusty with life” protagonist, copping an Academy Award (the first of two) as Best Actress for her extraordinary efforts. The score by Max Steiner, one of the longest to that time, is a certifiable classic among movie-music buffs. The instantly recognizable main Tara theme practically screams Hollywood to any and all corners. The production was designed by William Cameron Menzies, with art direction by Lyle Wheeler and costume designs by Walter Plunkett. If this isn’t the greatest epic Hollywood’s Dream Factory has ever produced (it’s all a matter of personal taste, in the final analysis), then Gone With the Wind absolutely lives up to its reputation as a certifiable crowd-pleaser without equal.

The Graduate (1967)

Dustin Hoffman & Anne Bancroft (mcantil.com)

“Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again.” The first lines of director Mike Nichols’ screen adaptation of Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate come from “The Sounds of Silence,” written and performed by singer-songwriter Paul Simon and his partner Art Garfunkel. Contrary to accepted wisdom, the song was unrelated to Nichols’ film, but only became part of the finished soundtrack as an afterthought. It seized upon the prevailing mood of the time, which reflected the angst, the awkwardness, and the uncertainty of modern life, as well as the feelings of impending doom that the Vietnam War (and other crises) would soon bring to the fore. What Nichols brought to the material (an opening salvo in the so-called Hollywood “New Wave” of contemporary productions) was a biting wit and satiric edginess that captured the true essense of the turbulent sixties as few flicks of the era did. Not to say there weren’t other, equally absorbing glimpses into sixties pop culture (Bonnie and Clyde and In the Heat of the Night among the better ones); but this film, which made stars of its leads — and a household word out of Simon and Garfunkel — was the hands-down favorite. The sexual revolution is about to kick into high gear when Benjamin Braddock (a perpetually befuddled Dustin Hoffman, in his first major screen role), the clueless graduate of the title, comes home after four years of undergraduate studies in the East. Benjamin has no idea what to do with his life; his rich, upper-class parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) provide little guidance, as do their unhelpful neighbors: “I just want to say one word to you,” the kindly Mr. McGuire advises him. “Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.” Unable to face up to the challenge, Benjamin isolates himself in his room. Into his dreary world walks Mrs. Robinson (a supremely self-possessed Anne Bancroft, who was only a few years older than Hoffman), the alcoholic wife of his father’s best friend and law partner (delightfully underplayed by a laid-back Murray Hamilton). Mrs. Robinson initiates the young fool into the pleasures of the flesh, which boosts the ungainly Benjamin’s confidence level to no end. A hilarious hotel rendezvous notwithstanding, wherein the utterly bewildered Benjamin almost loses what’s left of his bearings, all goes well with the affair; that is, until he is introduced to Mrs. Robinson’s strikingly beautiful daughter, Elaine (angelic looking Katharine Ross). When Mrs. Robinson hears of the couple’s budding romance, she decides to take matters into her own hands, to disastrous but ultimately comic effect. Many of the film’s most memorable moments, including Dustin’s head-banging episode at the hotel room, were spur-of-the-moment inspirations, as recounted in Mark Harris’ book Pictures at a Revolution. Besides the other Simon and Garfunkel hits scattered throughout the story (“Mrs. Robinson,” “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” and “April Come She Will”), the remaining music was supplied by jazz artist Dave Grusin. Calder Willingham and Buck Henry wrote the riotous screenplay, with Buck playing it straight as the deadpan Room Clerk. Many priceless vignettes by an army of featured contract players, including (try to spot them) Alice Ghostley, Marion Lorne, Norman Fell (“I don’t think we’ll have any more of this agitation. Will we, Mr. Braddock?”), Mike Farrell, Richard Dreyfuss, Elaine May (who partnered with Nichols onstage in the fifties and sixties), Jonathan Hole, Noam Pitlik, and Kevin Tighe. Still as fresh, funny and sharp as it was in 1967. Our favorite scenes are Benjamin’s disruption of Elaine’s wedding and the iconic last shot of the two of them in the back of the bus. This one scores a perfect 10 in my book.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Anthony Quinn, Peter O’Toole & Omar Sharif (eves-reel-life.blogspot.com)

What makes a film a classic? Better yet, what makes a film epic a classic film epic? Without boring readers to tears with dry, statistical analysis — and for the sake of argument — let’s say that David Lean’s 1962 desert opus Lawrence of Arabia conveniently fits both bills. At roughly four hours in length, including overture, intermission and exit music (in Robert Harris’ exemplary restoration effort), it’s every critic’s Exhibit A in the “classic film epic” department, no contest about it. Why is that? Well, it’s got style to burn. It’s got wit, it’s got taste, it’s got sweeping romantic vistas and magnificent location scenery. It also features an enigmatic title character in T.E. Lawrence, deftly handled by the young Peter O’Toole in a wide-ranging (and revelatory) performance of the first order. Viewers were equally divided as to whether Lawrence was any more knowable at the end of the saga than at the beginning. Certainly the way the character’s been written (Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson contributed the Oscar-nominated screenplay) makes Lawrence out to be more of a warmongering adventure seeker and less of a real hero — an anti-hero, if you prefer. Still, all glory and honor are due O’Toole for what must have been an impossible acting assignment. He had to capture Lawrence’s softer “feminine” side, so to speak (his latent homosexuality could only be hinted at in 1962), without giving away the game or giving up any of the manly heroics associated with the historical figure. In addition, O’Toole had to reveal Lawrence’s exceptionally volatile nature as well as his high tolerance for pain – the torture scene featuring the sadistic Turkish Bey with the troublesome cough (played by Jose Ferrer) is a good case in point. The plot, in brief, concerns misfit British officer, Lieutenant Lawrence, and his involvement with Saudi Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness in a false beard and even more faux accent). His orders are to keep a close watch on those Arab beggars (“They’re a nation of sheep stealers,” according to the bigoted General Murray) and report his findings to British High Command in Cairo. Instead, Lawrence takes the bull by the horns by throwing himself headlong into an ad hoc campaign of his own devising. “I’ve got orders to obey, thank God. Not like that poor devil. He’s riding the whirlwind,” comments Murray’s replacement, General Allenby. Lawrence’s goal is to oust the stubborn Turks from the gulf port of Aqaba by using ragtag Bedouin tribesmen, the only force available to him. As fate (and luck) would have it, his plan works brilliantly — too brilliantly, one might add – and rather too easily for Lawrence’s future benefit. Sadly, it’s all downhill from there for the heavily burdened “El Aurens,” as the natives now call him. A legend of his own making (helped along by American reporter Jackson Bentley), Lawrence learns that he’s human after all and prone to all-too human failings — among them, a built-in self-loathing for what he’s become. In his international film debut, Omar Sharif contributes class, charm, and good looks (along with a sizzling screen presence) as Lawrence’s sympathetic Arab companion, Sherif Ali. Anthony Quinn (with an immensely prominent, hooked proboscis) is warrior chieftain Auda Abu-Tayi, his “ally” in arms. Others in the all-male cast include Jack Hawkins as a remarkably convincing General Allenby, Claude Rains as Dryden, head of the Arab Bureau, Anthony Quayle as Colonel Brighton, Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley (the Lowell Thomas doppelganger), and bushy browed Donald Wolfit as the short-sighted General Murray. The film is divided into two parts, with the second half dragging slightly. The downbeat ending is, as expected, just that. But there’s no overlooking the award-winning desert cinematography by Freddie Young, or Maurice Jarre’s flavorful and much admired (by this author, anyway) film score, another award winner. Director Lean keeps it all together, in the process showing how to keep the focus on the human element amid the bloody spectacle of war. Produced by movie mogul Sam Spiegel, whose crowning achievement this undoubtedly was. All that’s left to say is: “Here, here!”

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Tyrone Power & Basil Rathbone (altfilmguide.com)

Fancy sword-play, dashing derring-do, damsels in distress, padres and peasants in revolt against their oppressors – all this, and lovely Linda Darnell, too. These are just some of the doings in this classic Twentieth Century-Fox swashbuckler, a film that defines the genre as few others from that period have. Handsome leading man Tyrone Power has a field day in the dual role of Don Diego Vega, foppish fool and carefree gentleman by day; and as Zorro, devil-may-care swordsman and masked good-guy avenger by night (from Johnston McCulley’s original 1919 story, with hints of The Scarlet Pimpernel thrown in). Darnell is the alcalde’s young niece, the beautiful Lolita Quintero. This sound remake of Douglas Fairbanks and Noah Beery, Sr.’s silent adventure flick is superior entertainment all around. Basil Rathbone takes over as bad-guy Captain Esteban, who shows off his remarkable fencing skills in a fast-paced duel to the death with Power (choreographed by fencing-master Fred Cravens). Eugene Pallette is the typically harried Fray Felipe, with J. Edward Bromberg as the alcalde Don Luis Quintero, Gale Sondergaard as his wife Inez, Montagu Love as Don Diego’s father, Don Alejandro Vega, and George Regas, Chris Pin-Martin, Frank Puglia, and Pedro de Cordova as extras. Stylishly directed by Rouben Mamoulian (Queen Christina, Blood and Sand), the film reeks of class. It also boasts a marvelously memorable, one-of-a-kind score by one of Hollywood’s most decorated film composers, Alfred Newman. Once heard, the main melody will remain with you for days on end. The plot revolves around Don Diego returning to nineteenth-century Southern California after having spent his youth in Spain. He finds his hometown in turmoil, thanks to the greedy Don Luis and the abusive Captain Esteban. Slowly but surely, Diego hits upon a plan whereby, with the aid of Fray Felipe, he begins to take the town back from the rich overlords with daring night raids on their purse-strings – sort of a Spanish-style Robin Hood, if you will. In the meantime, he throws the suspicious captain off the scent by courting the highborn Lolita. Remade for television, in 1974, with an appropriately polished Frank Langella as Diego, villainous Ricardo Montalban as Esteban, and Gilbert Roland and Yvonne De Carlo as Diego’s parents; and in 1998 as The Mask of Zorro, starring athletically inclined Antonio Banderas and an equally dexterous Catherine Zeta-Jones, with Anthony Hopkins as an over-the-hill Don Diego. Power’s version is still the best by a long shot. Sumptuously photographed by Arthur C. Miller, the 1940 film accomplished in 94 minutes what it took the other versions hours to do – but never quite made it. A winner in every way.

Shirley Jones & Robert Preston (wondersinthedark.wordpress.com)

The Music Man (1962)

Where would high school musicals in this country be without this perennial (and thoroughly entertaining) slice of rural American life, the ever-popular theatrical showstopper The Music Man? An absolutely perfect, razzle-dazzle realization of Meredith Willson’s sprightly tribute to turn-of-the-century, small-town mores. Super salesman “Professor” Harold Hill (Gary Conservatory, Gold Medal Class of ‘05) comes to River City, Iowa, to fleece the local yokels out of their hard-earned cash, by duping them into signing their kids up for a proposed boys marching band. He attempts to deliver on his promise while simultaneously courting the town’s spinster librarian named Marian. It all turns out well in the end, though. Many lively and original musical numbers, along with delightful dance sequences, contributed by a well-blended cast, some from the original New York stage production. Stars Robert Preston, in one of his strongest roles, as the fast-talking con man Harold Hill, lovely Shirley Jones as the warbling Marian, young Ron Howard (then billed as Ronny) as her little lisping brother Winthrop, Pert Kelton (the original Alice Kramden on TV’s The Honeymooners) as the lady with the Irish brogue, Mrs. Paroo, along with Buddy Hackett as fellow flim-flammer Marcellus Washburn, blustering Paul Ford as the self-inflated Mayor Shinn, Hermione Gingold as his wife Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn, and the phenomenal barber shop quartet known as The Buffalo Bills. Directed by Morton Da Costa, who oversaw the original Broadway outing. Beautifully captured in widescreen Technicolor glory, an absolute must for full enjoyment. Toe-tapping, trombone-thumping fun all the way. Don’t miss it!

Network (1976)

Peter Finch (themoderatevoice.com)

For satire to be truly effective it must consist of the following elements: irony, wit, sarcasm, parody, exaggeration, and a surefire sense of the absurd. In addition, it should be devilishly clever as well as funny, with the laughter sticking in one’s throat. Where Network is concerned not only are these elements present, but there’s also an air of urgency to the characters, along with the seemingly distraught situations that Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (The Hospital) and director Sidney Lumet (Twelve Angry Men, Fail-Safe) have placed them in. Much of the story revolves around aging television anchor Howard Beale (an exhaustively manic and over-the-top Peter Finch in his final screen appearance), who heads up the nightly newscast for fourth-rated TV network UBS. Howard is on his last legs, a man with precious little to live for. But instead of retiring gracefully from the scene he threatens to blow his brains out on the air, much to the consternation of news division heads, especially excitable corporate flunky Frank Hackett (a perfectly realized Robert Duvall). Despite the best efforts of fellow newsman Max Schumacher (played by veteran thespian William Holden, whose worn features betray more than a hint of sadness) to keep him in line and out of trouble, Howard escapes from Max’s apartment (in the pouring rain, no less) to make a beeline for the TV studio, where he delivers one of cinema’s most impressive lines: “I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.’ ” His erratic behavior becomes a lifeline for Howard as well as a godsend for the network, thanks to an ambitious rising star in the news division named Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway at her sleaziest). She sees the eccentric anchor as her ticket to fame and fortune: the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, so she says – a combination of Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes with our own Glenn Beck – a patently insane fellow who could give the struggling network the ratings boost it sorely needs. The question that was asked at the time of the movie’s premiere was: could TV networks be THAT ratings conscious (and that unscrupulous) as to program a show with the title The Mao Tse-tung Hour, about radical leftists attempting to overthrow the U.S. government? Or be seriously touting Sibyl the Soothsayer as a newscaster? You bet it could. Nowadays, this is what passes for “entertainment” (if you’re unconvinced, tune in to Long Island Medium or Fox News for further proof). And Network was the trailblazer in this respect, the most prescient and forward-looking film Hollywood has ever produced. Finch won a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar (the first ever awarded to a deceased star) as the “making-it-up-as-he-goes-along” Mr. Beale. Beatrice Straight won the Best Supporting Actress Award for her scene-stealing turn as Holden’s estranged spouse Louise. And Dunaway ran away with the Best Actress honors for her lead role as the scheming Diane. With Ned Beatty, brilliant as the evangelical head of the network, Mr. Jensen (“You…will…atone!!!”), Arthur Burghardt (an actual vegetarian) as the Great Ahmed Kahn, licking his chops over a bucket of fried chicken; and Wesley Addy, Bill Burrows, Conchata Farrell, and Kathy Cronkite as the slogan-spouting, Patty Hearst-lookalike Mary Ann Gifford, along with Ken Kercheval, Lance Henriksen, and a host of others. They’ll still be talking about this one when we’re old and gray, it’s that relevant. A shocker of an ending tidies things up nicely… well, sort of.

A Night at the Opera (1935)

Chico & Groucho Marx (avaxhome.ws)

No, not the Queen album, but just the Marx Brothers’ best attempt at integration of top-drawer comic and musical material into a feature-length film, the boys’ first for MGM’s Wunderkind, Irving Thalberg. A classic comedy of only the most outlandish proportions, its sideways pokes at snobbery, elitism, the establishment, and serious music-making remain timeless and fresh even today. Groucho plays society gatecrasher Otis B. Driftwood (don’t you just love those outlandish names of his?), with Chico and Harpo as pretty much variations of their usual meddling (and incompetent) selves. Verdi’s Il Trovatore gets a well-deserved drubbing (talk about a ridiculous plot!), thanks to the Brothers’ spurious efforts to champion the debut of their new tenor discovery Ricardo Baroni, played by the curly-headed Allan Jones. The romantic subplot between him and the fetching Kitty Carlisle, as soprano Rosa Castaldi, is just another ingredient in the general movie mayhem. They have excellent voices, by the way. Margaret Dumont returns as the rich dowager, Grande Dame and patroness of the opera Mrs. Claypool, whose girdle must be made of cast-iron, she’s so ramrod straight. The wonderfully phlegmatic Sig Rumann is the flustered opera impresario Mr. Gottlieb. And Walter Woolf King lends considerable (if under-appreciated) support as conceited male divo Rodolfo Lasspari. The enjoyable songs (“Cosi, Cosa,” “Alone”) are coupled with a riotous, nothing-sacred finale at the “New York” Opera Company, with some hilarious bits on board an ocean liner thrown in — “And two hard-boiled eggs” (HONK) “Make that three hard-boiled eggs” — that have passed into movie legend. Written by George S. Kaufman, among others, and directed by the Brothers’ favorite handler, Sam Wood. All the vital elements finally clicked for the boys. This was the first Marx Brothers’ movie sans younger brother Zeppo.

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

The Prince of Egypt (tumblr.com)

Kids may want to tune in, along with their parents, to this animated musical account of the Exodus story, The Prince of Egypt, a 1998 product of DreamWorks Pictures, the joint Steven Spielberg-Jeffrey Katzenberg studio venture. It incorporates state-of-the-art digital animation effects, and utilizes the voices of Val Kilmer as Moses, Ralph Fiennes as Pharaoh, Patrick Stewart as his father Sethi, and Michelle Pfeiffer, Jeff Goldblum, Sandra Bullock, Danny Glover, Ofra Haza, Steve Martin, and Martin Short in other key roles, to tell the tale of Moses, the Ten Commandments, and the parting of the Red Sea. Despite the clash of accents among the talented cast, the story is straightforwardly told, and this version, which is vastly superior to most Saturday morning fare (if not quite up to the advanced level of the best of the Disney Studios) is entertaining and gripping nonetheless. The visual rendering of the characters favors an elongated eloquence reminiscent of the Mannerist style of portraiture (think El Greco, or possibly Modigliani) that gives the finished product a uniquely original stamp of its own. The rivalry between the young prince Moses and future pharaoh Rameses is a thinly-veiled reworking of the Judah/Messala conflict found in MGM’s 1959 version of Ben-Hur, another superior religious picture. Thankfully, the script is on the same high level as that feature. And there’s even a hit song, i.e., “When You Believe,” to thrill to, beautifully sung in the movie by Pfeiffer, and repeated in the end credits as a power duet between then-reigning pop divas Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. This is highly recommended for all family members.

The Searchers (1956)

Jeffrey Hunter & John Wayne in The Searchers
Jeffrey Hunter & John Wayne in The Searchers

Which movie was John Ford’s greatest? Some may say The Grapes of Wrath or How Green Was My Valley; others cite the Cavalry trilogy or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But for my money, it has got to be The Searchers (based on the book by Alan Le May), a grandiose statement of Shakespearean proportions in its use of language (sometimes stoic, sometimes descriptive), locale (Monument Valley), comic relief to dissipate tension (the loony bird Mose, the Jorgenson clan, the preacher-turned-Texas Ranger, Capt. Clayton), and supremely memorable characterizations, the finest of which is John Wayne. He gives a towering performance as Ethan Edwards, a man obsessed with rescuing his kidnapped niece Debbie (Lana Wood as a child, big sister Natalie Wood as a teenager) from the arms of a Comanche chief named Scar (Henry Brandon). Failing to realize that he himself is scarred by his past — not just from battle but with the taint of racism and fear of miscegenation — Ethan lives out his bigotry in a search of his lost soul. It seems that he and Chief Scar are both motivated by feelings of revenge for the atrocities perpetrated on their loved ones. Ethan’s adopted nephew, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter, in another indelible portrait), acts as his conscience and guide through this minefield of hate, a Jiminy Cricket trying to keep his uncle honest about his motives in their years-long search. There’s a poetic rhythm and unmistakable melancholy to their journey. Director Ford wisely keeps dialogue to a minimum. We merely sense Ethan’s unspoken love for his brother Aaron’s wife, Martha, a lost amour from his youth. Their looks and gestures say it all. The opening number, “What Makes a Man to Wander” (sung by the Sons of the Pioneers) states the story’s theme right from the outset — it reappears at the end, serving the same function as a Greek chorus in summarizing prior events: “What makes a man to wander / What makes a man to roam / What makes a man leave bed and board / And turn his back on home? / Ride away – ride away – ride away.” Although the score is credited to Max Steiner, the song was composed by Stan Jones, a sometime member of Ford’s stock company. But the focus remains on Wayne’s character. Ethan eventually brings Debbie back to civilization, but he cannot partake of the happy homecoming. He stands outside the doorway, forever apart, forever searching, as he walks slowly away. One of Wayne’s greatest accomplishments on screen is the depth to which he was able to plummet to get at Ethan’s brooding character, i.e., that of the rugged individualist wounded by society’s encroachment, who seeks redemption for his sins by doing that which most men refuse to do; to face hardships head-on, only to retreat into the background once their duty is done. Wayne dredged up the darkness that resided within his own psyche: he’s Lucifer after the fall, trying to regain a measure of his humanity; Odysseus after the wars, lost on the Western prairie, pining for home and hearth; and Captain Ahab, driven to madness by his desire to even the score with those who annihilated his kinfolk. The other cast members, all of them good, include Ward Bond, Hank Worden, Ken Curtis, Harry Carry Jr., John Qualen, Olive Carey, Vera Miles, Antonio Moreno, Pippa Scott, Dorothy Jordan, and Warren Coy. Wayne’s son Patrick makes a cameo appearance. Fess Parker was originally tapped for the role of Martin, but the Disney Studios refused since Parker was tied up with promotional duties as Davy Crockett, a part that Wayne later played in The Alamo. With outstanding location photography by Winton C. Hoch, and a concise screenplay by Frank Nugent (The Quiet Man, Fort Apache), The Searchers influenced scores of motion pictures, among them George Lucas’ Star Wars series and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

A Star is Born (1954)

Judy Garland in A Star is Born
Judy Garland in A Star is Born

In reading critic and author David Thomson’s book “The Big Screen,” I came upon a section devoted to movie musicals — specifically, the 1954 musical version of A Star is Born with Judy Garland and James Mason, produced by Sid Luft (Judy’s husband at the time), directed by George Cukor for Warner Bros., and written by Moss Hart. The 1937 version, produced by David Selznick, was conceived by Alan Campbell, Robert Carson Dorothy Parker, and William Wellman after Adela Rogers St. John’s story, “What Price Hollywood?” (1934), the film of which Cukor also directed. Thomson points out a connection I never noticed before: that the wistful music for both “The Man That Got Away” from A Star is Born and the song, “Over the Rainbow,” from The Wizard of Oz (1939) were composed by the same man, Harold Arlen. A coincidence perhaps? Hmm… And both numbers in turn were performed by the same singer, Judy Garland, at opposite ends of her fame and fortune. If it can be said of any artist, it most assuredly exemplifies the work of the former Frances Ethel Gumm: that she wore her pain on her sleeve. In Judy’s world, it would be considered a badge of honor (or dishonor, depending on your point of view) to be shared with anyone and everyone you’d come in contact with. When we’re young and naïve, the mere thought of experiencing pain and hurt are anathema to our very being. It’s so traumatic a sensation that you’d want to flee the room, and the person, where pain is present. As we grow older and, we must admit, hopefully wiser, we long to be near it; to grasp it, hold it, stroke it, much as a moth is helplessly drawn to the flame. We know we may be burned by our proximity to the one whose pain and anguish erupts from every fiber of her soul. But that’s exactly how we should experience Judy Garland’s art at this, the pinnacle of her career. Her pain was our pain — and it’s inescapable. This film, made when she was only 32 (but looking years older), is Judy at her tortured peak, her “swan song” to her fans; an insider’s fisheye glimpse of a complicated life lived in full view of the paying public. By now, most viewers will be familiar with the plot of talented band singer Esther Blodgett (Judy), renamed Vicki Lester, whose career rises in direct proportion to her alcoholic actor-husband Norman Maine’s faltering one. To spare his wife from tumbling along with him, Norman (Mason) decides to end his life by drowning his troubles at sea. Both stars shine in this fabulous Technicolor widescreen CinemaScope spectacular, with Judy providing equal parts vulnerability and humor to overcome her many backstage issues (i.e., her dependency on drugs, her weight problems, and her illnesses, both real and perceived). Besides the aforementioned “The Man That Got Away,” which summarizes the story textually and contextually, there is the 18-minute “Born in a Trunk” sequence to admire, choreographed by Richard Barstow to the music and words of Roger Edens and Leonard Gershe. Other songs include Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s “Gotta Have Me Go With You,” “Here’s What I’m Here For,” “It’s a New World,” “Someone at Last,” and “Lose That Long Face,” along with a medley of George Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart tunes. The other cast members are Charles Bickford, Jack Carson, Tommy Noonan and Amanda Blake. Trimmed of approximately 37 minutes after its successful release, A Star is Born has been painstakingly reconstructed to 176 minutes (but not the test-cut time of 196 minutes or the premiere running time of 182 minutes) for the DVD/Blu-ray Disc editions, with scenes and numbers restored using photographs, pan and scan footage and snippets of outtakes, making it a not to be missed one-of-a-kind experience. Sadly, once you’ve seen the end product, you may never want to view it again. Considering what Judy went through in the final months of her life (epitomized in Peter Quilter’s theatrical play, “Judy Garland – The End of the Rainbow”) in eerie imitation of the film’s premise, there’s just too much pain attached. Indeed, she paid the ultimate price for Hollywood stardom. The film was remade again by Warner Bros. in 1977, this time as a vehicle for Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.

The Ten Commandments (1923)

Charles de Roche & Theodore Roberts (parallax-view.com)

One of the earliest depictions of the story of Moses and the Hebrew Exodus out of Egypt still available to modern movie audiences comes from famed producer-director Cecil B. DeMille, a former stage actor and Hollywood co-founder, who even in the silent-film era was famous for his lavish historical pageants and superb handling of mass movement in crowd scenes. His first crack at the biblical genre was this 1923 silent epic version of The Ten Commandments, starring Theodore Roberts as Moses, Estelle Taylor as Miriam, and Charles de Roche as Pharaoh, produced by Paramount Studios and partially filmed in Guadalupe, Mexico. The moving Exodus episode and the handing down of the commandments are dealt with in expert fashion, while the rudimentary special effects, particularly the parting of the Red Sea, are indeed impressive for the time. The second half of the film is devoted to a more “contemporary” interpretation of what happens to one of two siblings who breaks God’s rules. Richard Dix and Rod La Rocque play the battling brothers (one good, one bad) in traditional, melodramatic clutch-and-stagger style, while silent movie queen Nita Naldi vamps it up as the tragic temptress who comes between them. Despite the soap opera trappings, the movie proved a big hit at the box office, raking in an incredible four million dollars in its day. The first part is the more gripping portion, and is recommended for joint family viewing. You’ll want to fast-forward through the stagy second section, which tends to drag a bit and might prove too mature for young children.

Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan (photo us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com)

Touch of Evil (1958)

By the time of its release, the film noir genre had just about played itself out, but leave it to that old filmmaker and former “boy wonder,” Orson Welles, to find new nuances in it. Looking like a perpetually bloated bullfrog, Welles brings a lifetime of indulgence and missed opportunities to his role of the fat, over-the-hill police chief Hank Quinlan, a poor man’s Harry Lime — and twice as dishonest and repulsive. The film features Charlton Heston as a swarthy Mexican (!) detective whose wife Welles frames for murder. Heston refused to play his part unless Welles, scheduled to co-star with the lantern-jawed hero, was allowed to direct. His decision turned this potential grade-B thriller into an art-house classic. As reward for his accepting the assignment, Welles hired (and surrounded himself with) such old cronies as Joseph Cotten, Akim Tamiroff, Joseph Calleia, Mercedes McCambridge, and Marlene Dietrich, who donned a gypsy outfit and black wig to play Quinlan’s ex-squeeze. Curvaceous Janet Leigh is Heston’s doting and doped-up wife. The reedited version (allegedly more faithful to Orson’s original vision) is minus some of the fine, Latin-based jazz score penned by Henry Mancini (a major loss), but the justly famous opening sequence is left mercifully intact, and is just as revelatory. The ending has Welles floundering about like a beached whale, while Dietrich tosses off some choice postmortems. A perfect vehicle for rabid noir fans, and a fascinating glimpse into what can be done on a shoestring (nay, poverty row) budget. The luminous black and white photography is admirably transcendent.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Walter Huston, Tim Holt & Humphrey Bogart (watchtheacademies.wordpress.com)

B. Traven’s 1927 novel about three prospectors panning for gold in the rugged Mexican backlands served as the basis for this classic Warner Brothers film depiction. Written and directed by Academy Award winner John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), who lived for a time in Mexico and appears as the white-suited American continually hit upon for monetary assistance; and co-starring his actor father, a toothless Walter Huston, in an Oscar-caliber performance as the lanky old-timer Howard, it’s an epic morality tale about the dangers of too much greed and too little foresight. Desperate for a quick buck, two down-and-outers, Fred Dobbs (a mean and ornery Humphrey Bogart, in one of his best “bad guy” roles ever) and Bob Curtin (a stocky Tim Holt), team up with the aforementioned Howard, a veteran of past prospecting ventures, upon hearing him talk up a storm about his exploits in a Tampico flophouse. Howard knows a thing or two about prospecting, and even more about human nature. After Dobbs gets lucky with a winning lottery ticket, the trio sets off for the Sierra Madre mountains. Seeing the agile old geezer traverse steep terrain with precious little effort, Dobbs wonders if he isn’t part goat. With Howard’s help, however, they hit pay dirt; but soon after, the men are forced to confront other crises, among them a fourth vagrant named Codie (Bruce Bennett), who’s just itching for a piece of the action. When Codie is killed by bandits and Howard gets whisked off by the locals for saving a boy’s life, Dobbs and Curtin are left to fend for themselves. Eventually succumbing to gold fever, Dobbs tries to eliminate the competition in typical delusional fashion. He meets his fate at the hands of those same Mexican bandits, one of whom, a nervous fellow known as Gold Hat (newcomer Alfonso Bedoya — forever fidgety, thanks to Huston’s non-direction), earlier uttered the famous line about not having to show “any stinking badges.” For an action-adventure yarn, this adult drama emphasizes (wonder of wonders) character development over special effects – in particular, that of the reckless Fred C. Dobbs. His descent into a fiery furnace is a trifle too literal at times, but otherwise this is fine entertainment the whole family can enjoy. It’s amazing what the talented Bogart can do with this two-dimensional creature. By humanizing Mr. Dobbs, one almost feels sorry for the man, which is probably the right feeling to have in these circumstances. Tim Holt is equally memorable for revealing Curtin’s warm and tender side (the touching letter reading episode, for instance). He’s joined by his old man, veteran cowpuncher Jack Holt, who can be seen briefly in the flophouse sequence. Last but not least, there’s the great Walter Huston, sounding off with that infectious laugh of his, as well as doing that funny little dance that Billy Crystal so admired (and stole from) for his comedic version of the story (see City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold). One can’t fail to mention Max Steiner’s powerful film score, a major character in itself. Others in the cast are Barton MacLane, young Robert Blake as the boy who sells Bogie the winning ticket, Arturo Soto Rangel, Jose Torvay, Margarito Luna, Pat Flaherty, and (most controversially) Ann Sheridan as a streetwalker. The ending is a masterpiece of cinematic irony, and the film is noteworthy, too, for not having the spoken Spanish subtitled.

Twelve Angry Men (1957)

Twelve Angry Men (1957)
E.G. Marshall, Henry Fonda & Lee J. Cobb in Twelve Angry Men

A powerful look into the American criminal justice system and the mysterious ways of jury deliberation and manipulation, the much lauded Twelve Angry Men was director Sidney Lumet’s first foray into the world of first-run cinema. The story was based on writer and producer Reginald Rose’s Emmy-winning teleplay of the same name, which he developed for the CBS anthology series Studio One. Rose, who created and wrote the successful TV series The Defenders (which also starred E.G. Marshall), had himself served on a trial jury; both the play and the subsequent movie version were taken from his personal experiences of that event. Although Lumet was a product of the off-Broadway theater circuit (he was a co-founder of the Actor’s Studio), he was also a pioneer of early television, having worked on a variety of network programs, among them You Are There, Playhouse 90, Kraft Television Theatre, and the ubiquitous Studio One. The tensions that pervade the 96-minute Twelve Angry Men derive principally from a critical plot element whereby twelve jurors are charged with deciding the fate of a disadvantaged product of an inner-city slum tenement. The defendant, a teenager of Hispanic descent, is alleged to have stabbed his father to death after a loud quarrel. The jurors involved in the case comprise a cross-section of familiar character “types,” each with their own viewpoint based on their individual backgrounds and biases: the bleeding-heart liberal (Henry Fonda), the coldly analytical broker (E.G. Marshall), the narrow-minded bigot (Ed Begley), the self-made businessman and troubled parent (Lee J. Cobb), the endlessly patient jury foreman (Martin Balsam), the mousy bank employee (John Fiedler), the streetwise ex-ghetto inhabitant (Jack Klugman), the chronically indecisive ad man (Robert Webber), the ethnic immigrant (George Voskovec), the common working stiff (Edward Binns), the apathetic sports nut (Jack Warden), and the wise old man (Joseph Sweeney). As they begin their deliberation, the lone holdout, known only as Juror #8 (Fonda), voices a reasonable doubt as to the boy’s guilt. Claiming the prosecution’s case is based primarily on circumstantial evidence, Juror #8 slowly and methodically builds a case of his own for the defendant’s innocence. The movie takes the juror’s theory and follows it to its startling conclusion. Despite a few lapses in logic, including a controversial move by Fonda involving the weapon used to commit the crime, the structure and (basically) one-room setting are unique to films. Along with Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder from 1959, another entertaining, highly adult, almost clinical dissection of a rape and murder case, Twelve Angry Men was deservedly honored in 2007 for inclusion into the National Film Registry. To this day, Lumet’s maiden achievement on film is used in law schools and criminal justice classes as a textbook example of what juries go through in arriving at a life or death decision. One must also mention the claustrophobic environment throughout, thanks mainly to Boris Kaufman’s black-and-white cinematography and the low camera angles. A five-star production hands down, this feature is as relevant today as it was back in 1957— maybe more so! Updated and remade in 1997, it starred Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott, Tony Danza, Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, Hume Cronyn, Dorian Harewood, Edward James Olmos, James Gandolfini, Armin Mueller-Stahl, William Petersen, and Mykelti Williamson. Part of the “fun” of this version, which is several notches below the excellence of the original, is seeing who got which roles in comparison to its predecessor. Try it and see! ◘

Copyright © 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

Orpheus Ascending — A 2010 Revival of ‘Orfeu’ in Rio Sparks Renewed Interest in Vinicius and Jobim’s Work

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Aline Nepomuceno & Erico Bras (Photo: Leonardo Aversa)

Number of performers: 16 actor/singers (all black). Number of stage musicians: seven (on guitar, cello, drums, bass, keyboard, percussion, and woodwind). Additional songs used: “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”), “Este seu olhar” (“That Look of Yours”), “Água de beber” (“Water to Drink”), “A felicidade” (“Happiness”), “Chora coração” (“Cry, Dear Heart”), and “O morro não tem vez” (“The Hills Don’t Have a Chance”), among others.

All told, nearly 40 songs and assorted musical numbers were employed, to include the original Tom Jobim score, for the September 2010 revival of Orfeu da Conceição, based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, by Brazilian poet, performer and songwriter Vinicius de Moraes at the Canecão Nightclub in Rio de Janeiro. The show played at HSBC Brasil in São Paulo through October 3rd. From there it was scheduled to move to Brasília, the nation’s capital, with further offerings in Goiânia and Porto Alegre.

The original three-act work, which also premiered in the month of September, in 1956 at Rio’s Teatro Municipal (with sets by architect Oscar Niemeyer), had been condensed into two. Paulo Jobim, composer Jobim’s guitarist son, who was scheduled to play alongside cellist Jaques Morelenbaum, left the show before the opening due to previous commitments. His central spot, as the musician who plays Orfeu’s lovely guitar solos, was taken over by Jaime Alem.

Now simply called Orfeu, after the main protagonist (the producers dropped the da Conceição portion from the title), the show succeeded in sparking renewed interest in a neglected masterpiece of Brazilian musical theater. There was renewed interest as well as in its youthful and energetic cast.

Lead actor Érico Bras (Orfeu), a native of Bahia and a member of Oludum’s celebrated drum corps, had much to say about his breakout stage part: “He’s a seducer, a charmer. He strikes a chord on his guitar and the women fall all over him… For a guy like me, who comes from a band like Olodum, it’s an opportunity to experience another line of work.”

Aline Nepomuceno, a fellow Bahian who played the sweet and gentle Euridice, Orfeu’s love interest, described her character as a bit of a “tease, but in an innocent way. She lacks an explicit sensuality. Her relation to Orfeu is light and of a certain purity… It’s a heavy responsibility,” she acknowledged, “and I’m trying to stay focused. It’s a chance to show off my work, that I’m not just another pretty face from TV.”

Indeed, both actors were considered “veteran performers” of the big and small screens, so to speak, having already appeared together in the TV series Ó Paí, Ó, with Bras having survived a brush with cinema stardom, playing a minor role in the movie Quincas Berro d’Água (“Quincas Water-Yell”), based on the novel by Jorge Amado (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Tietá de Agreste).

Major Departures

A major departure from the original play, i.e., the character known as The Poet (formerly Coryphaeus or “Leader of the Chorus”), performed by actor/singer Wladimir Pinheiro, a Niteroi native, was viewed as a stand-in for real-life poet Vinicius de Moraes. The chorus had been reduced to five singer/dancers, in wide-brim hats and lime-colored suits, who in this production served as The Poet’s (that is, Vinicius’) friends. Together, they helped to explain some of the stage action in truncated form (thus eliminating a good deal of expository information), in addition to “softening” some of the scene changes.

Aderbal Freire Filho (contigo.abril.com.br)

One of the criticisms leveled at Orfeu is that the action was too brusque for audiences to follow. “The reason for this,” according to director Aderbal Freire Filho, whose modern updates of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth inspired a goodly amount of controversy on their own, “may have been due to the play being written over a 10-year span.” The first act was dashed off, in one night, in February 1942; the second and third acts between the years 1946 and 1948, when Vinicius found himself working in Los Angeles; followed by a rewrite in 1952-53 (he lost the third act in transit to Paris), all of “which could have contributed to the brusqueness of the subsequent passages,” Freire reflected.

Another problem was the style of language used. That may have seemed like a bogus issue, considering that flowery oratory was a fairly common practice at that time (the play was originally written in verse form). Historically, Vinicius spent a large portion of his working life overseas, due to his conflicting career as a diplomat with the Brazilian Foreign Service, Itamaraty. Consequently, he was not as familiar with carioca street lingo as he needed to be in order to bring his literary vision to theater life.

Realizing this, the poet enlisted the aid of others in helping him adapt the play’s lofty language for contemporary audiences to enjoy. This resulted in his justly famous – and famously foresighted – written injunction that, “All the personages of this tragedy should normally be played by black actors… The popular slang that is employed throughout, which tends to fluctuate with the times, can be adapted to fit these new conditions. The lyrics of the sambas included in the play… should be used as is, although the story can be altered in the same manner as the slang.”

Still, according to director Aderbal, it was not always possible to escape the passage of time, or “the reference to the slums that exist today.” The changes he made, then, were not just for show. For example, the director introduced three armed bandits, who hold The Poet up at gunpoint. The bandits are later integrated into the story, taking on new roles in Act II.

“I did not create new characters, dialogues, scenes or conflicts within the text,” Aderbal explained. “I don’t call my work an adaptation; it’s different from what was done in the movies [referring to the two previous screen incarnations: the first, Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus, from 1959; the second, Orfeu, in 1999, directed by Carlos Diegues]. Originally, the play had a chorus and a leader. Here, the chorus becomes friends of The Poet, and the leader becomes The Poet. I introduced dialogues and scenes for these friends; and a good deal of what The Poet [spoke were] lines that Vinicius had written. I put in place songs and dialogue wherever the play allowed. They are interventions that compliment the original verses, but don’t necessarily modify them.”

What About the Originals?

A third issue concerned the original songs. Except for the pop standard, “Se todos fossem iguais a você” (“If Everyone Were Like You”), known in the U.S. as “Someone to Light Up My Life,” recorded by a variety of artists, including Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, the other numbers were, in the view of some critics, “minor works in comparison to what came later,” and “are not representative of the best of Vinicius and Tom Jobim.” This is strictly a matter of opinion – and not a universally held one, at that.

Jaime Alem & Jaques Morelenbaum (showbras.com.br)

From the musical side of things, arranger/musician Jaques Morelenbaum, who worked closely with Jobim in his Banda Nova days (from the late eighties to the mid-nineties), commented about the insertion of additional material: “There is nothing preserved in recorded form or on video of the original staging or spoken words; but we imagined that, in a production of at minimum two hours duration, there was bound to be other music used that could have been lost over time. We rescued the numbers ‘Euridice’s Theme,’ an instrumental number that Tom wrote for the show for which no lyrics exist, and ‘Dama Negra’s Theme’ [played, for the first time, since the 1956 premiere], a piece that has never been recorded.”

“Vinicius was looking for a composer to write some songs for his play,” added Aderbal, “so that’s how he got to meet Tom. They could have done the job and never bumped into each other again. Today, we know that from there they went on to form one of the most important partnerships in the history of Brazilian music… Besides the songs ‘Happiness,’ ‘Someone to Light Up My Life,’ and ‘Lamento no morro’ (‘Lament on the Hill’), we included songs that were written afterwards, such as ‘Chora coração,’ which fits especially well into one of the scenes [i.e., after Euridice is killed]. Others seemed as if they were created just for this staging, almost as if they were an extension of the original play.”

Morelenbaum and Alem were clearly alert to the possibilities – and astute enough to look at the original score. After which, they decided to present Jobim’s music exactly as written, albeit for a reduced ensemble of players instead of a 35-piece orchestra. (There’s an interesting bit of trivia associated with the original production: Jaques’ father, instrumentalist Henrique Morelenbaum, played in the Teatro Municipal’s orchestra the night of the Rio premiere.)

Staging the Piece

The sets, by Marcos Flaksman, were arranged in minimalist fashion. Stacks of boxes, resembling the shantytown, or favela, that the story takes place in, were displayed one on top of the other. There were staircases on both sides, symbolic of the steps that lead from one shack to the other and from one mountaintop community to another.

The seven musicians were grouped to the left of the playing area, with the guitar prominent in the middle. Chairs were arranged along the back walls and to the right, in which The Poet, chorus, and other participants sat and waited for their turn to speak (this was somewhat reminiscent of the classic staging for Thornton Wilder’s Our Town).

According to producer Gil Lopes, “I wanted to re-stage Orfeu not only for me, but for newer generations [of Brazilians], so they could get in touch with this national classic of dramaturgy. There was a sense of urgency in bringing Orfeu back, now that Brazil, in these times, is in the midst of consolidation, both socially and economically.”

Lopes went on to note that, “Brazil is passing through a time of affirmation. The premiere of Orfeu comes at just the right moment to stimulate this path… Orfeu is absolutely relevant, not only for telling a story that defines who we are, but also in bringing [to the fore] the songs of Tom Jobim, consecrated the world over, that represent the best of what Brazilian music has produced.”

Aline, Erico & Isabel Fillardis (agenciafm.blogspot.com)

Preparations for this long-awaited revival — the first since Haroldo Costa, the original Orfeu, undertook to bring his version to Rio in 1995-96 — lasted two and a half months, with rehearsals taking up to seven hours a day. Aderbal Freire Filho decided not to interfere, except minimally, with the nucleus of the original plot [the love of Orfeu for his Euridice]: “Everything revolves around the central story,” he insisted, “and along its margins, as a framework for the piece.”

He preserved the natural classicism of Vinicius’ text, while taking the bard’s own reference to his play as “a poem in the form of theater in which the author is profoundly present” quite literally. This is where the idea for The Poet came in: “He is the ideal poet, eternal,” Aderbal claimed, “a name that represents all poets, who represent the art of poetry itself.” Because of this, Aderbal concluded that “The Poet should speak Vinicius’ own [lines of ] poetry, many of which are as well known to Brazilians as his music.”

Orfeu returned to the stage at a time when many of Rio and São Paulo’s theaters were preoccupied with musical productions from Broadway and London’s West End. “Instead of being intimidating,” Gil Lopes claimed, “this reality is a motivating force; it gives more impetus for us to show what is ours. The presence of foreign musicals indicates that the time is ripe to invest in a national production of the same genre. In this instance, there is no more opportune time than to present Orfeu, the greatest of Brazilian musicals, the most illustrious product of our national culture: the encounter of Vinicius de Moraes and Tom Jobim.”

Copyright (c) 2010 by Josmar F. Lopes

Samuel Ramey — Getting Down to Bass-Baritone Basics

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Samuel Ramey (wttw.com)

Not to be confused with Sam Raimi, the flashy filmmaker and director of Spider-Man and The Evil Dead series, American bass-baritone Samuel Ramey has been one of the world’s leading singers since the late seventies, after his contemporary, Norman Treigle’s untimely passing in February 1975, and Cesare Siepi’s retirement from the stage in 1989. His only other vocal competition – in the Italian and French repertoires, that is – has been Ruggero Raimondi, from Bologna, and Ferruccio Furlanetto, born in Sacile, Italy.

It’s hard to believe that the tall, studious-looking singer with the supple yet booming bass voice, from the sticks of Colby, Kansas, would one day become one of the world’s most sought-after lower male voices. But his path to operatic stardom, like that of the other great performers before him, began, simply enough, amid humble surroundings.

Samuel Edward Ramey was born on March 28, 1942, and went on to sing in many high school and college productions in his native Kansas, prior to serious vocal studies at Kansas State University, and later at Wichita State. He claims never to have even heard an opera until his university years, whereupon he became enthralled with the virile sounds and organ-like tones of the great Italian basses, Ezio Pinza (a fine role model, indeed) and the aforementioned Siepi.

I had the vast pleasure, and profound good fortune, to have seen and heard many of Ramey’s earliest performances with the New York City Opera near the beginning of his marvelous career. His debut there, in 1972, was as Zuniga in Bizet’s Carmen – not the most exciting of bass roles, to be sure, but certainly one that a novice artist could shine in. And that he did.

The first time I caught Ramey at his modest best, however, was in Gounod’s romantic opera Faust, in a 1975 revival of Frank Corsaro’s Gothic-style production, which had originally been mounted for City Opera star Norman Treigle and his frequent stage partner at the time, the bubbly Beverly Sills.

Ramey’s fellow singers on the occasion I attended were all talented, aspiring artists of excellent caliber; they included Carol Bayard (Marguerite), Kenneth Riegel (Faust), Thomas Jamerson (Valentin), and Susanne Marsee (Siebel). But the bass’s own elegant and malevolently unctuous Méphistophélès, sung in a smooth-as-silk yet insinuating manner – and in quite viable French – was the unqualified triumph of the evening.

The young singer appeared at City Opera with more frequency throughout the latter part of the seventies. He made a great impression in all the standard pieces assigned to him. For instance, Ramey sang everything from Timur in Puccini’s Turandot, Don Basilio in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Giorgio Walton in Bellini’s I Puritani, and the four villains in Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, to Figaro in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and the Reverend Olin Blitch in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. His illustrious predecessor, Treigle, had sung (with notable success, I might add) many of these same parts at the New York State Theater; but I doubt even Treigle could have tackled these roles with the same artistry or flare, the same richness of tone, and the same unstinting vocal splendor that Ramey had shown in this early phase.

As an example, the night Ramey sang in The Tales of Hoffmann was one I will never forget. I recall, quite vividly and with a fair amount of goose bumps, his superb interpretations of Councilor Lindorf, Coppelius, Dapertutto, and Doctor Miracle – each character individually delineated, both vocally and visually.

This was originally a Tito Capobianco-designed production, built for and prepared around the team of Sills and Treigle. The opera had been revived in 1976 after a brief absence, and Ramey was cast in the part of the four main villains. In true City Opera tradition, he was again surrounded by a fine ensemble that boasted the likes of Gianna Rolandi as Olympia, Patricia Craig as Antonia, James Billings as Spalanzani, and Susanne Marsee as Nicklausse. The conductor was French music expert Julius Rudel, and as Hoffmann, the untested Italian tenor Gaetano Scano, whose vocal mannerisms and stage bearing reminded one of the young Franco Corelli. But the real focus was on Ramey.

The thunderous audience reception that greeted him at the finale to the Act III trio was tumultuous enough; but the shouting and foot stomping encountered at his post-curtain bow was nothing short of overwhelming. He gave an absolutely mesmerizing performance – his diabolical cackle at Antonia’s demise sent shivers down one’s spine. In my opinion, his triumph that night marked the beginning of Ramey’s true rise to super-stardom in the opera world.

The Devil, You Say?

The only remaining work still left to be explored – one that had previously belonged to Treigle, and that Ramey had longed to appear in and put his late rival’s ghost to rest – was the title role of Boito’s Mefistofele. Treigle had recorded his signature part for EMI/Angel Records back in 1973 (with tenor Plácido Domingo and soprano Montserrat Caballé, Rudel conducting), but the production had not been seen at the City Opera for several seasons since his death. It would continue to be unheard there until NYCO approached their burgeoning bass star to appear in the 1978 revival.

Ramey as Mefistofele (super-conductor.blogspot.com)

Again, I had the opportunity to have been present for most of the above performances, but especially for Mefistofele, which I caught on four separate occasions, three of them with Ramey and one with Puerto Rican-born bass-baritone, Justino Díaz (who was fine, but no Ramey). The overall stage design was conceived by Capobianco and Elena Denda, his wife, and had been, at the time of its unveiling, one of the first multimedia productions at the NYCO; it featured the heavy use of slides, back scrims, front and rear projections, as well as strategically placed brass ensembles and backstage choral effects. It was staged specifically with Treigle’s talents in mind, i.e., his bellowing voice (which frequently gave out during performance) and smallish, agile frame, which fit easily into his flesh-toned bodysuit.

For this revival, however, the devil’s makeup and costume were modified somewhat to accommodate Ramey’s more substantial physical features. Taller, broader, and a bit fuller in shape than Treigle – who, if memory serves, looked and acted rather like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy – Ramey sported a newly created, fantastic horned headdress that made it look as if two monstrous tree limbs were growing out of the top of his forehead. He also wore a tattered rag of a robe that bore an uncanny resemblance to a torn spider’s web. These slight but effective alterations were enough to make the part of Boito’s devil truly his own and not just a carbon copy of the original.

As for his voice, it was a singularly spectacular instrument: large, clear, overpowering in its solidity and firmness, and rock steady from top to bottom. His rolling and groveling on the City Opera stage couldn’t match that of Treigle’s, of course – again, the Gollum comparison is quite apt here. However, Ramey hurled his unique bass voice right out into the auditorium with tremendous abandon and projectile-like accuracy. For his efforts, he was given an even more deserved, highly enthusiastic and vociferous standing ovation than in Hoffmann, as the State Theater literally shook from the spontaneous demonstration, with the audience raining down strips of confetti, bouquets of flowers, and torn pages from that evening’s programs onto the stage apron. Ramey basked in the adulation with the self-effacing aplomb of a true artist.

I saw him again in another late seventies presentation of Faust, although this time his portrayal proved much coarser and less refined (less Gallic-sounding, would be the term I’d use) than before, and understandably so, after his long run in the dramatic Boito work. In addition, his co-stars were weaker, which made his assignment that much more noticeable. Still, from there Ramey went on to an absolutely sensational debut at the Metropolitan Opera, in January 1984, as Argante in Handel’s Rinaldo, which marked the official launch of his international opera career – and a vocal and histrionic highpoint as well.

I continued to see him at the Met as Escamillo in Carmen and as Boito’s Mefistofele, in addition to Faust, The Tales of Hoffmann, Verdi’s Nabucco, as King Philip II in the same composer’s Don Carlo, in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and as General Kutuzov in Prokofiev’s War and Peace. But the favorable impression he had made on me initially, when he was a rising young star in the New York City Opera firmament, has never left me, nor has it been repeated by any of his subsequent performances, I’m reluctant to say, with the possible exception of his extraordinary work in Handel. Ramey’s career at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala in Milan, the Vienna State Opera and Salzburg were all warmly and deservedly praised, no questions asked; but the time he spent at the NYCO was, for me, his best and most lasting work.

I will never forget Samuel Ramey’s Timur, his Don Basilio, his four Hoffmann villains, or his Figaro. But his two Devils? Ah, now we’re getting down to bass-baritone basics! ♪

Copyright (c) 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘I’m Frightened, Dave’ — My Favorite (And Not So Favorite) Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror Flicks List

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Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a devoted fan of science-fiction movies. I also happen to love fantasy and horror flicks. The good ones, that is – not the schlock that nowadays passes for quality.

A few years back, I decided to take this devotion a step further by compiling a list of my favorite (and not so favorite) features in each genre. Many of these films are in my personal collection; others I’ve been exposed to only in theaters or on TV. Still, I couldn’t wait to tell others how I felt about them; in other words, what I found fascinating and enlightening, dull and boring regarding, intriguing and diverting about each one. I needed to share my views with like-minded readers, to see if my thoughts made any sense.

Well, here are those thoughts, updated and in semi-alphabetical order (for the most part). If there’s a favorite film out there I haven’t accounted for, feel free to put in a plug for it. As Robert De Niro once said to a clueless Jonathan Pryce, in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil: “We’re all in this together, kid.”

Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey (kubrickfilms.warnerbrothers.com)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

We begin our list with Stanley Kubrick’s timeless visionary epic, a film that’s solemn and slow moving, stately and portentous to the ninth degree, but a bona fide sci-fi classic nonetheless. The elegance, serenity, majesty, and, above all, mystery of space travel are preserved here in all their widescreen splendor. Now tell me: has any sci-fi feature of the last 40 years been more fully realized on celluloid than Kubrick’s acclaimed masterpiece? The work that went into the final product is truly breathtaking. The story: highly evolved super-beings deposit their calling card on Earth (and on the Moon), in the form of a large, rectangular-shaped black monolith. With the object’s ability to implant suggestions into their brains, primitive man-apes are taught to use rudimentary weapons in order to gain dominance over their foes, as well as their harsh environment. The evolution of these man-apes into Homo sapiens leads to the next phase of development, with man literally branching out into new worlds — both physically and metaphysically — far beyond his own. But what does it all mean? The ambiguously written screenplay by director Kubrick and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, after his short story “The Sentinel,” explores cosmic questions of the specie’s origins, its ultimate purpose, and inevitably, its fate. Keir Dullea is astronaut Dave Bowman, and Gary Lockwood his colleague Frank Poole, two of the dullest space travelers this side of Jupiter. It’s left to the HAL-9000 super-computer to supply the missing “human” element. With William Sylvester, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, and the flat, matter-of-fact speaking voice of Douglas Rain as HAL (no, it was not a takeoff on the acronym for IBM). Kubrick hired composer Alex North to do the background scoring, but went with a more eclectic, pre-recorded classical soundtrack instead (Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and Johann Strauss, Jr.’s On the Beautiful Blue Danube, are among the orchestral delights) to serve as a commentary on the loneliness and mysticism of space exploration; he also trimmed his epic of about 20 minutes of redundant footage due to excess length. Despite the director’s penchant for authenticity, the scene of the scientists inspecting the monolith on the Moon drew criticism from, of all people, the original scenarist Clarke, who claimed the men were not bouncing around on the surface as they would normally be in life — so much for realia on the big screen. It’s on nearly everyone’s top-ten list of the best films ever made, and continues to exude a strong influence on modern movie-makers, to include Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and J.J. Abrams. Each successive generation finds new meaning in the work, and with reason. No matter how one feels about 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s still the ultimate trip worth taking.

Bud Abbott, Bela Lugosi & Lou Costello (flickr.com)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Exemplary A & C comedy, with Universal Pictures reuniting several of its patented movie monsters for this engaging romp. Co-starring Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., Lenore Aubert, Glenn Strange, Jane Randolph, Charles Bradstreet, Frank Ferguson, and the voice of Vincent Price. The plot involves Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Gray (Lou Costello) finding Count Dracula (Lugosi) and the Frankenstein monster (Strange) alive and well and living (?) in the state of Florida. Dracula is about to revive the monster for his own fiendish purposes. He enlists the aid of sexy scientist Sandra Mornay (Aubert) as an all-too willing accomplice in his scheme. Their plan: to put Wilbur’s brain in the monster’s body (yikes!). Before this nightmare can take place, Wilbur is rescued by his pal Chick and the always-nervous Lawrence Talbot (Chaney), who chooses that inopportune moment to transform into the Wolf Man. Oh, and there’s also a surprise “visit” by the Invisible Man (Price) at the end. Riotous farce with great FX for the period, amid the studio-bound sets. The boys share a fine rapport with their guests — in particular Lugosi, who was nearing the end of his black-caped career. It’s hard to tell if his pasty-faced countenance was due to makeup or his debilitating drug habit (well documented in Tim Burton’s equally worthy Ed Wood). Appropriately eerie score by Frank Skinner, reused innumerable times for Universal’s subsequent monster pix. Abbott and Costello regulars Bobby Barber and Joe Kirk appear in small bits. Directed by Charles Barton, who oversaw many of the boys’ Hollywood forays. Keep your ear cocked for Lou’s flubbing of a line (“I’m telling you , Abbott” instead of “Chick”) as they look for Dracula in the cellar.

Alien (collider.com)

Alien (1979)

Rather loosely based on the hoary B-picture It! The Terror From Beyond Space, this outer-space horror show provides fine chest-bursting thrills and solid shock value for the buck — albeit in slow doses. It’s more than your average monster-on-board-a-spaceship epic: with its gleaming slickness, oozing drool, and, quite unexpectedly, acid for blood, the Alien takes on overtly sexual overtones. Penetration (in all its myriad forms) is taken to the ultimate extreme — but that’s the “point” of it. It’s what our unfriendly, neighborhood Alien represents: Ripley’s (and the crew’s) scariest and most nightmarish wet dream. There’s artistry afoot, though, with credit largely due director Ridley Scott for his fine sense of the subtle: few movie-makers of his stature (at the time) have used silence to such a tension-inducing degree. When the chills do come, they literally jump out at you. Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s horrific phallic symbol is so grotesque and so disgusting, it’s beautiful. The visual effects are by Carlo Rambaldi, who went on to work on the more benign E.T. The Extraterrestrial, and other features. The young Sigourney Weaver all but steals the show as Ripley (but do pull up those panties, dearie). Co-starring top-billed Tom Skerritt as Captain Dallas, Ian Holm as the secretive science officer Ash, with Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, and John Hurt as Kane. The nerve-tingling atmosphere and claustrophobic sets became famous in their own right as the “wet subway” look — a big plus, as is the gigantic spacecraft Nostromo (the name taken from a Joseph Conrad novel) and the voiceless computer Mother (shades of Norman Bates in Psycho). Kudos to Jonesy the cat for some purrfectly good scenes. The score is by Jerry Goldsmith, with an added dose of Howard Hanson towards the end. No need to tell readers how influential this film has been; it spawned a whole industry of alien-type splatter movies, and (to date) three sequels, three derivatives, and one prequel. Time has softened many of its original gross-out effects, but be warned: there are many violent and disturbing scenes for the impressionable among us – including those “twitchy” androids out there (and you know who you are!).

Aliens (1986)

Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (thebookssmugglers.com)

Oh my goodness! Instead of one horrific Alien to challenge the senses, now there’s a whole slew of them. This non-stop, slam-bang action-packed sequel is from director James Cameron (Terminator, Piranha II). It stars Sigourney Weaver repeating her Ripley role from Alien, along with new crew members Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton (hilarious), Carrie Henn, Jenette Goldstein, William Hope, and real-life drill instructor Al Matthews. One of the writers was noted action director Walter Hill, and the novice James Horner did the anvil-crunching score (with themes recycled from his earlier Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). In this one, the Aliens not only become Ripley’s worst nightmare, they’re now every audience member’s as well. As one of the space grunts Hudson so casually observes, it’s a “bug hunt.” That it is, but what a bug they hunt! Many small details pay homage to war films, in general, and the Vietnam War experience in particular. Case in point: the little phrases written on the space marines’ hardware and helmets (“Fly the Friendly Skies,” for one). Ripley’s mechanized battle with the gigantic Alien Queen becomes an elemental struggle for survival between two mothers defending their brood. It looks forward to a similar showdown in Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and backward to the classic fight with the giant spider in Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. Not the best of the breed, by any means, but without a doubt the most pleasing to date. Followed by two inferior “sequels,” if that’s the proper term: Alien3 and Alien Resurrection.

William Hurt (twitchfilm.com)

Altered States (1980)

Eccentric genius or certifiable madman? That’s the question to be asked, in this faithful film version of Paddy Chayefsky’s science fiction novel, one of British director Ken Russell’s least scandalous screen adaptations of a literary work. The film’s biggest mystery, however, is why author Chayefksy had his name removed from the credits; it follows the outline of his book almost to the letter. Oh well, egos… William Hurt, in his smash screen debut, plays a research scientist who experiments with mind-altering drugs and isolation tanks, which transform him into a primal man-ape — sort of the evolutionary process in reverse. Blair Adams is his concerned spouse, while Bob Balaban (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and Charles Haid (Hill Street Blues) go at each other’s throats as their loudmouth friends. The final denouement is a bit of a letdown, but then again so was the novel’s. Superior FX and excellent Rick Baker makeup make this modern-day Jekyll & Hyde story a rare example of intelligent science-fiction blended with horror elements that works on an intellectual, if not exactly visceral level. It refuses to condescend to its audience, treating the subject with utmost seriousness. The atonal score is by John Corigliano, his first for the movies. He went on to do several more, including Revolution and The Red Violin. Not for all tastes, and definitely not for the kiddies (there are some steamy sex scenes to watch out for), but an absorbing film experience all the same. A must in widescreen color.

Apocalypse Now (dvdbeaver.com)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Highly controversial since its premiere in the late seventies, Apocalypse Now is now considered a post-Vietnam War era classic. While not exactly that — Oliver Stone’s Platoon fits this bill better, we believe — there’s still no denying its intoxicating power and influence. It’s a downer of a movie, all right, yet it remains one of the most potent, dreamlike, and surreal war films ever made. Director Francis Ford Coppola literally went mad trying to keep it all together; the almost insurmountable problems he and his cast and crew encountered (and tried to overcome) while filming on location in the Philippines are vividly captured in wife Eleanor’s award-winning documentary of the shoot, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. The story, rather loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s dense novella Heart of Darkness, concerns the search for renegade megalomaniac Army Colonel Walter Kurtz, who has set himself up as a deity somewhere in the Cambodian jungle. Tightly wound Special Forces Captain Benjamin Willard, played by the young Martin Sheen, is sent upriver to seek out and destroy the mad colonel, and thus put an end to his charade. Only, which is the worst charade: what Kurtz is attempting to do, or what the U.S. Army hopes to accomplish by killing him? The question is put forth and answered, somewhat. Many penetrating and harrowing moments throughout. There are so many great things in it (the Air Cavalry’s charge to the strains of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, the USO show in the middle of nowhere, the Do Lung Bridge sequence, the tiger “attack” in the dense wood), it’s almost a sin to bring up its myriad problems, the major one being the presence of an overweight (and unintelligible) Marlon Brando as the mysteriously cryptic Colonel Kurtz. Engulfed almost entirely in shadows, Brando’s rambling readings of his lines provoke more bewilderment than enlightenment. The other problem is the episodic nature of the plot. Still, there are some dynamic performances amid the chaos, especially from Sheen (who replaced Harvey Keitel, and had a near-fatal heart attack during mid-production), Robert Duvall as the surf-loving warmonger Colonel Kilgore, Dennis Hopper as the hyper-kinetic photojournalist, Frederic Forrest as Chef, young Laurence Fishburne (he was only fourteen) as Clean, Albert Hall as Chief, Joseph Bottoms as surfer dude Lance, and G.D. Spradlin and Harrison Ford in smaller roles. Coppola himself appears as the news reporter who tells Sheen to look away from the TV camera and go about his business while explosions resound all around him. Vittorio Storaro did the superb cinematography, and Walter Murch provided the enveloping soundscape — with a nod to Brazilian jazz percussionist Airto Moreira. Try to avoid the Redux version, which only pads the story unnecessarily. The original is the one to see.

Val Kilmer (filmfunds.com)

Batman Forever (1995)

Val Kilmer took over the role of Gotham City’s brooding crime-fighter in this fairly successful if exceedingly loud third entry in the series. Here, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne explores the dark night of his own soul, as he dates a nubile shrink (luscious Nicole Kidman), while battling two new super-villains: the riotous Riddler, played to rubber-faced perfection by the ultra-kinetic Jim Carrey; and the repulsive Two-Face, given a slightly lower-octane performance by Tommy Lee Jones. There’s too little of him and more than enough of Carrey to go around. Superb production values and spectacular action sequences galore, all enthusiastically staged in excruciating slow-motion by new helmsman Joel Schumacher. The music, by Elliot Goldenthal, is in the style of Danny Elfman’s earlier scores for the first two films, but with a nocturnal life of its own. Also in the cast are the irreplaceable Michael Gough as dedicated manservant Alfred, Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, and Chris O’Donnell as Robin, the Boy Wonder. He and Kilmer share an interesting boy-man relationship, with more than a hint of homoerotic overtones. (Hmm… check out the nipples on that bat costume, fellas!) This version is certainly better than the previous ones, but there’s something unsettling about a hero who comes off as darker, and gloomier, than the foes he’s pursuing.

Arnold & Uma (people.theiapolis.com)

Batman & Robin (1997)

With former ER regular (and gorgeous hunk) George Clooney as the third Batman, expectations ran high for the series. Unfortunately, it hit a brick wall with this over-complicated, over-produced effort, directed with sledgehammer subtlety by Joel Schumacher. Elliot Goldenthal wrote the thunderous music score. Where previously Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer played the Dark Knight as troubled and moody thirty-somethings (in that order), Clooney is a more mature, misty-eyed type, especially when fretting over the (supposedly) terminally-ill butler Alfred, played by straight-laced Michael Gough. Bruce Wayne’s relationship to Robin has become less crackling as well, though Chris O’Donnell is still winning in the part. He’s given a good deal of the grunt work in this version, along with Alicia Silverstone as a preppy California-style Batgirl. Dressed as a walking wedding cake and tossing off dry one-liners (“Niiiiiice”) at the drop of an icepick, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the villainous Mr. Freeze, who decides to wreak vengeance on the dynamic duo after the accidental death of his wife. He’s joined by the vampish Poison Ivy, languidly played by Uma Thurman in a raggedy Robin Hood outfit with leaves. Neither star can save this train wreck from the home-theater black hole, where it’ll probably serve as excellent surround-sound demo fodder. There are huge, ear-shattering explosions, but it’s all for naught. We learn more than we care to about Alfred’s early love life and precious little about anyone else. The whole thing is overlong by two-and-a-half hours. Former wrestler and ex-governor of Minnesota, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, appears in a bit part, if anyone’s interested…

Rutger Hauer (northierthanthou.com)

Blade Runner (1982)

Stunning production design and exemplary art direction. That’s Blade Runner for you, a film that’s been influencing the look of science-fiction fantasy films — and those with apocalyptic impulses — for more than a generation, to include the likes of cyberpunk (The Matrix series), anime (Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Metropolis), and other forms of mass entertainment. The Warner’s Studio had a tough time figuring it all out, though. Initially, it marketed the feature as a combination murder mystery-cum-film noir detective story, with Harrison Ford’s monotonous voiceover as a perfunctory commentary on the action (or the lack of it). The redundant narration was later dropped, much to everyone’s relief, as were a few reshuffled scenes, for the re-released 1993 director’s cut. This is now the preferred way to see this mind-boggling sci-fi epic. Based on Philip K. Dick’s novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it’s set in a rain-drenched, futuristic Los Angeles in which, among other things, the denizens have adopted a newfangled street slang (anyone for Esperanto?). So-called “Replicants” from an off-world mining site have gone haywire (what else is new). They’ve returned to Earth to seek out their creator in order to prolong their shortened lives. For you see, they all have built-in four-year lifespans — and time is running out. Ford plays Rick Deckard, a kind of maverick bounty hunter who appears to be on the lam himself (he’s the Blade Runner of the title). But from what, we’re not exactly sure. He meets up with the Replicants, principally pleasure model Pris (a gymnastically inclined Daryl Hannah) and the philosophical Roy Batty (rugged Rutger Hauer). He then eliminates them. That’s the plot! Sean Young plays an android or clone (or something), with flavorful turns by William Sanderson, Joe Turkel as the thick-lensed creator, and Edward James Olmos, Joanna Cassidy, and Brion James. The highly regarded synthesizer score is by Greek New Age specialist Vangelis. Ridley Scott directed, and brilliantly, I might add. Needs repeat viewings to fully appreciate the incredible depth of detail that went into the making of it. The production was designed by Syd Mead, who also worked on Cameron’s Aliens and Disney’s Tron. Mesmerizing and hypnotic, to say the least. A highlight is Hauer’s poetic speech at the end, which succinctly summarizes his existential views of humanity. There are sly commentaries about who is more deserving of a chance at life, the Replicants or the humans, and what it is that makes us human. Overall, a fascinating, thought-provoking picture, with a well deserved cult following.

Gary Oldman (marie-deepthinker.blogspot.com)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

The very conceit of inserting the name of its original author into the title might lead viewers to expect a more faithful rendering of this oft-filmed horror tale (which it is). Except that it, too, includes more than a few embellishments to Stoker’s Gothic romance (the prologue and battle with Moslem Turks for one, and Minna Harker’s attempted seduction of Van Helsing for another) that do not appear in the novel. No matter. English actor Gary Oldman is the long-lived, blood-sucking Count Dracula, here disguised as Romanian Prince Vlad. With his long hair parted down the middle, wistful expression, low-key delivery, and tinted blue eye-shades, he’s a dead ringer for Ozzy Osbourne! Anthony Hopkins is that old vampire slayer, Professor Van Helsing, playing him to the hysterical hilt as well as in a constant state of manic flux. Winona Ryder is Minna Harker, and she’s one of the best things in the picture. Her youthful radiance and dark good looks contrast markedly with that of her counterpart Lucy Westenra, played by sexy redhead Sadie Frost. Keanu Reeves strives mightily to maintain his British accent throughout, but manages only to imbue Jonathan Harker with a high degree of detachment, in addition to varying shades of hair color — an egregiously bogus performance. Another Brit, Richard E. Grant, is terrific (as always) in the smaller but no less showy part of Dr. Jack Seward, slightly expanded from the book. Bill Campbell is fine as the Texan Quincy Morris, as is Cary Elwes as Lucy’s betrothed, Lord Arthur Holmwood. Both characters are customarily eliminated in most versions of the story. Singer-actor Tom Waits plays an even loonier Mr. Renfield than Dwight Frye ever did: Waits takes the art of insect-eating to new heights (or depths, depending on one’s viewpoint), while longtime character actor Jay Robinson (The Robe) has a bit part as his boss. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who uses every conceivable film artifice imaginable to convey the story in purely cinematic terms. The screenplay is by James V. Hart. There are gorgeous color schemes and atmospheric set designs. It’s quite impressive, really — both aurally and visually — with excellent Foley effects, art direction, and costumes (by the late Eiko Ishioka). Hard to believe it was all filmed on a sound stage. The drama lacks thrust at key moments, and tends to drag a might before the wham-bam finale, done as a fast-paced horse chase. But the powerful, romantic score of Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, which alternates his orchestra with choral and percussive effects, aids immeasurably. Recommended, but with reservations.

Close Encounters (moviefancentral.com)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977-80)

Together with Star Wars and Superman, this picture practically defined the term “blockbuster” at the box office in the late 1970s. Alien visitors are about to arrive on Earth. They advertise this fact by implanting sounds and images in the minds of everyday citizens of where they’ll be gathering (stop me if you’ve heard this before). We get to meet two of them up close and personal. They’re played by Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon, who typify your average middle-class folk dragged unwittingly into something a hell of a lot bigger than they (or we) could possibly imagine. This film brought all sorts of kudos to writer-director Steven Spielberg, who has never been satisfied with the end result. Spielberg was even compared to Stanley Kubrick for his visionary themes and technical precision (they later became fast friends, with Spielberg taking over the uncompleted A.I. Artificial Intelligence project from him). The compliments are somewhat exaggerated, but the film itself is quite impressive to look at. The brilliant FX are the work of Douglas Trumbull, who worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey a decade earlier, and the cinematography is by Vilmos Szigmond. The DVD/Blu-ray Disc releases incorporate all existing versions of the film, as well as additional deleted scenes, to form a more complete “Special Edition” of one of the best science-fiction fantasies of recent times. It’s far from perfect, however. There are some discernible lapses in the story line, especially concerning the Dreyfuss character, and the dialogue borders on incoherence (the dinner table sequences are especially trying). The added scenes do help to bring a clearer narrative focus to the whole, but the parts are still a bit fuzzy. It’s as if Spielberg were reluctant to spend time on the more down-to-earth aspects while itching to get on to the big finish. And what a finish it is! The appearance of the alien mother ship still takes one’s breath away with its awesome grandeur. John Williams’ powerful score figures prominently here; indeed, the film owes much of its success to his instantly recognizable main theme, which incorporates the Disney tune, “When You Wish Upon A Star,” towards the end. Speaking of that ending, the “Special Edition” takes the viewer inside the mother ship, but in truth it’s more buildup than actual payoff. Others in the cast are Terri Garr as Dreyfuss’ harried wife, Bob Balaban as an interpreter, French director François Truffaut as Lacombe (an offbeat bit of casting that works — why not a foreigner in charge? After all, he’s alien, too), little Cary Guffey (Dreyfuss’ real-life nephew) as Barry, and J. Patrick McNamara as the Project Leader. There are small roles for future stars Carl Weathers and Lance Henriksen. It’s more a case of show over substance, but what substance there is is choice!

Gort & Michael Rennie (rumormillnews.com)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Science fiction film noir, and one of the very best of its kind. An immediate movie classic, which, despite its Cold War origins, has not aged a single day since its premiere. An alien emissary from space comes to Earth bearing only goodwill. He also brings with him a dire warning, but his intentions are misunderstood by a paranoid society unwilling to listen or to compromise. Impatient with the usual authority figures, the gentlemanly alien Klaatu escapes his Washington, D.C., confinement to learn for himself what makes these mysterious Earth creatures tick. Michael Rennie is the cultivated (and veddy British) Klaatu. He’s joined by sympathetic office worker Patricia Neal as Helen Benson, Billy Gray (before his Father Knows Best period) as her inquisitive son Bobby, and soon-to-be popular sci-fi staple Hugh Marlowe (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) as Tom Stevens, who fingers the alien for capture by the U.S. Army (darn those pesky diamonds!). The film also features character actor Sam Jaffe (in a proto-Einstein hairdo) as the scholarly Professor Barnhardt, Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee in the Andy of Mayberry series), Olan Soulé, Carleton Young, Fay Roope, Freeman Luske, and real-life news personalities Drew Pearson and H.V. Kaltenborn. The role of the menacing robot Gort (a truly awesome creation) is played by seven-foot-four-inch Lock Martin, who was an usher at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He had to wear two different metallic costumes, one for the front view and one for the back, due to a conspicuous, non-photogenic zipper running down the length of each costume. Former movie editor Robert Wise directed in clinical, almost documentary-style fashion, while Bernard Herrmann provided the spare, minimalist score. His use of the theremin (two were featured on the soundtrack) gained widespread exposure for this exotic-sounding instrument. Keep alert to the many Christian and allegorical references spread throughout the script, i.e., Klaatu’s “resurrection” near the end, and his earthly alias (“Mr. Carpenter,” get it?). The original short story, “Farewell to the Master,” by Harry Bates, was considerably altered for this movie adaptation. The basic plot line was semi-reworked as well for the 1999 animated feature The Iron Giant. Stay away from the Keanu Reeves remake, or face obliteration!

Kyle MacLachlin (strangebutharmless.com)

Dune (1984)

This long-awaited release of one of the seminal literary classics of science fiction gets a much-needed-yet-perplexing screen adaptation from director David Lynch. Even fans of Frank Herbert’s dense work were dismayed at the resultant mishmash of Middle Eastern philosophies, corporate greed, and sixties pro-environmental concerns. The plot revolves around the manufacture and exploitation of mélange, a kind of “spice” found only on the planet Arrakis (Iraq?), and much coveted throughout the universe for its miraculous “psychic” properties (mind expansion, outer space travel, good vibes, what-have-you). The film’s problem is the presence of too many underdeveloped characters and story lines in a two-hour-and-seventeen-minute time slot. It has little narrative clarity, with much of the dialogue spoken in endless onscreen voiceovers, a tiresome device more at home in the world of Shakespeare. Kenneth McMillan’s disgusting portrayal of the villainous Baron Harkonnen is a fierce presence throughout and spot-on casting, to boot, as is that of the young Kyle MacLachlan, in his movie debut, as the messianic Paul Atreides. The rest of the international cast, including Juergen Prochnow, Francesca Annis, Freddie Jones, Sian Phillips, Richard Jordan, and Max von Sydow, try mightily to overcome the pervasive dreariness of the surroundings, to little avail. Also left adrift are veterans Jose Ferrer and Dean Stockwell, newcomer Sean Young, Linda Hunt, and a pre-Next Generation Patrick Stewart as weapons master Gurney. As the Baron’s nefarious nephew Feyd, rock singer Sting has what amounts to a virtual walk-on (“I will kill him!”), but he’s top-billed all the same, a clear case of caveat emptor. The droning, moody background score is by American rock group Toto, with a brief assist from Brian Eno, who composed the Prophecy theme. Snore… The special effects are nothing to brag about and surprisingly sub-standard considering the funds that were poured into this mess. But at least the all-important giant worms are impressive. Indeed, the strangest effect of all comes from the weird apparition known as the Navigator, which resembles a free-floating epiglottis (I thought it looked more like a giant vagina, but that’s for my analyst to decide…). The film does retain a certain cult following. However, it’s hideous to look at and fairly incomprehensible to all but those intimately familiar with the novel. The DVD/Blu-ray editions feature an additional hour of footage used in the TV-showing of the story. It’s credited to the pseudonymous Allan Smithee. Good luck with that!

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Johnny Depp as Edward (edwardscissorhands.wikia.com)

Sensitive and scarred, the impressionable Edward (played by heartthrob Johnny Depp) is the scissor-handed Figaro for the laid-back California set (actually, Central Florida), in a beautifully crafted, sentimental, and mostly enjoyable film, despite some crude language and forced humor. It’s a modern parable of Tim Burton’s pet hang-ups of having grown up in middle-class suburbia. Depp has his best role ever as the misunderstood boy-monster, a walking textbook of physical deformities and psychological debilities, but with a cookie-cutter-shaped heart of gold. Winona Ryder is equally winning as his would-be girlfriend, the blonde cheerleader Jill. Dianne Wiest is wonderfully ditzy as the perky, never-say-die Avon lady, Alan Arkin is fine as the easygoing head of the household, and an all-but grown-up Anthony Michael Hall is cast (against type) as Ryder’s spoiled brat of a jock boyfriend. Cathy Baker (The Right Stuff) is a howl as Edward’s sex-starved next-door neighbor, who just adores Tom Jones, a recurring Burton motif (see Mars Attacks!). And horror-movie icon Vincent Price has a field day as Edward’s elderly inventor, who tries to teach him the finer points of table etiquette, while his half-formed hand twitches nervously nearby. In that, Edward’s a Quasimodo for the nineties, an atypical success story driven to fits of anger and violence by the very townspeople he earlier had befriended — fair-weather friends is more like it. It’s an allegory of our own equal fascination with, and fear of, anything different or abnormal. Danny Elfman’s lovely and evocative score, with celesta and boys choir in the foreground, is beautifully sung and played, a major factor in the movie’s long-term popularity and success. Worth comparing to Burton’s next opus, the Henry Selick-directed stop-motion feature The Nightmare Before Christmas, of which it shares a similar production design and art direction. It’s early Tim Burton at his emoting best.

The Exorcist (1973)

Linda Blair, Max von Sydow & Jason Miller (Warner Brothers)

Two priests — one young, one old — are in the midst of performing the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism in a suburban Georgetown home. They repeat the phrase, “The power of Christ compels you!” ad nauseam, as they sprinkle holy water over the free-floating form of a twelve-year-old girl. The shocking events that follow are all part of director William Friedkin’s two-hour fright-fest The Exorcist, one of the most chilling examples of horror ever committed to film. Written by novelist William Peter Blatty, who adapted his own 1971 bestseller for the screen and worked as one of the producers, the movie begins, innocently enough, at an archeological site in Northern Iraq, where the elderly Father Lankester Merrin (a wizened Max von Sydow in makeup) suspects an old “enemy” has been let loose on the Earth in the form of an ancient relic. To his horror, Merrin realizes that sooner or later he will have to come to grips with this evil force, their final confrontation taking place in the climactic exorcism scene above. Back in Georgetown, a troubled priest named Father Damien Karras (a somber and dark visaged Jason Miller) is approached by Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a desperate actress and single mother whose daughter Regan (the fresh-faced Linda Blair) is experiencing, shall we say, dramatic physical and behavioral changes — an “extreme makeover” no child would want (and no mother could love). Chris begs the Father to perform an exorcism on the girl, but Karras has doubts about his own faith and worries if that’s the right thing to do. After seeing Regan “in the flesh,” he seeks the Church’s aid in combating the vile menace. That’s where Father Merrin comes in, the exorcist of the title. Demonic possession is the winner-take-all game here – and the devil plays for keeps. Regan’s transformation from a cute and playful youngster into a projectile vomiting, filthy-tongued monstrosity (“Your mother sucks cocks in hell”) serves as the special FX centerpiece to the drama. Filmed on location at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and at Fordham University in the Bronx, the lead actors underwent unbelievable pain and suffering to produce this masterpiece of the genre. Kudos to Mr. Friedkin (The French Connection) for getting his cast to undergo almost as much physical torture and discomfort as their fictional counterparts. The end result is gripping storytelling at its edge-of-the-seat finest. In addition to the superb technical aspects (by makeup man Dick Smith, and effects wizard Marcel Vercoutere), the sound plays an absolutely integral part in the overall production design, thanks to Gonzalo Gavira of El Topo fame. Featuring Lee J. Cobb as kindly Lieutenant Kinderman, Jack MacGowran as Burke Dennings, William O’Malley (an actual Jesuit priest, who served as technical adviser on the project) as Father Joe Dyer, and Rev. Tom Bermingham, another real-life priest, with Kitty Wynn, Titos Vandis, Peter Masterson, Barton Heyman, and Wallace Rooney. The electronically enhanced voice of the demon was mouthed by veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge. The urban legend that audience members had fainted and thrown up in theater aisles at the time of the film’s release is based on fact. We dare you to see it with the lights out! Go on!!!

Mickey meets Stokowski (fantasiaproject.blogspot.com)

Fantasia (1940)

Walt Disney set about making this animated cartoon-cum-concert feature as a bold, innovative experiment. Audiences and critics alike were somewhat baffled by it, however, and never able to grasp the work for what it was: a highly stylized (and unique) interpretation of popular concert set pieces. Some expected a Silly Symphony-style entertainment, what with the insertion of Disney’s most famous creation, Mickey Mouse, into Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” along with those tutu-wearing hippos and dancing ostriches from “The Dance of the Hours” sequence; they were put off by the artsy-fartsy pretensions of it all. Highbrow sensibilities aside, it was a radical new departure from the usual studio-crafted frivolity. Well-known composer, music critic, and radio raconteur Deems Taylor was selected as the narrator-host for the conception. He comes across as stiff and standoffish, but this was probably due more to his nervousness and unfamiliarity with the film medium. Leopold Stokowski conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra, and was a wise choice for the project, since he was a pioneer in the advancement of recorded sound. He helped shape the “Philadelphia Sound,” and was already an internationally recognized personality when Disney recruited him for the musical portions of the program. The majestic profile and baton-less conducting style were his trademarks, as well as the imperious presence — all in evidence in the finished work. He was also credited (erroneously it turns out, according to Neal Gabler) with giving the film its unusual title (“It’s a fan-ta-sia”). His influence can be felt in the orchestrations, especially the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain” sequence, in addition to the tinkering on Ponchielli’s “The Dance of the Hours,” the Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (completely rearranged), the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven, and the Bach-Schubert “Ave Maria.” It all reflects Stokowski and Disney’s joint vision, and was a most fortuitous collaboration of these two titans of opposing media. That it all worked as well as it did is simply fantastic! Some of the animation sequences go beyond mere storytelling and straight into the realm of psychoanalysis (for example, the primeval battle of triceratops and tyrannosaurus in “Rite of Spring”; the dark demon Chernobog, modeled after Bela Lugosi, in the nightmarish “Night On Bald Mountain”). Only Pinocchio matches it in originality and insight. Indeed, nothing the studio did thereafter has ever approached it.

Donald & Daisy (Walt Disney Studios)

Fantasia 2000 (2000)

The inspiration of Walt Disney’s nephew and heir apparent, Roy E. Disney, was the guiding force behind this updated version of the animated concert film Fantasia from 1940. In place of famed conductor Leopold Stokowski, we have longtime Metropolitan Opera maestro James Levine leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He lacks Stokowski’s dramatic flair and onscreen flamboyance, but surpasses him in musical articulation. The recorded sound is spectacular and natural sounding in 6.1-channel Dolby Digital Surround. The perfunctory introductions (called “interstitials”) by hosts Levine, Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Quincy Jones, Penn & Teller, James Earl Jones, Bette Midler, and Angela Lansbury, serve as natural pauses between the numbers, but distract more than they unite the disparate elements. The Mickey Mouse version of Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from the original has been kept. Although it’s a classic, and beautifully hand-drawn, its inclusion is a tad unsettling due to the differences between early and modern design techniques. It stands apart from the other sequences in both looks and sound — this is not a criticism, just an informed observation. Donald Duck finally gets a segment of his own, helping the biblical Noah populate the Ark, in Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance Marches.” The other set pieces are well chosen and superbly done via computer-generated imaging and traditional line drawing. The film features the abstract expressionist Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, the surrealistic flying whales of Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” the wonderfully interpolated Steadfast Tin Soldier story of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the delightful yo-yo playing flamingos of Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals,” the ecologically-influenced Firebird Suite of Igor Stravinsky, and the Al Hirschfeld-inspired “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence, marvelously drawn and perfectly executed. Whatever one’s opinion about highbrow entertainment, it’s a welcome return to form to what the studio does best — which is, to provide extraordinarily adventurous animation to the masses. The only complaint: it’s much too short.

Walter Pidgeon & Robbie (3guys1movie.com)

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Initially a formula-B programmer, this precursor to subsequent big-screen sci-fi opuses emerged as a prestige production at MGM — and is head-and-shoulders above the usual bug-eyed monster movie from the fifties. It influenced such works as diverse as Star Trek, Star Wars, Alien, Close Encounters, The Terminator, and many, many more. Based primarily on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it combines elements of classical mythology, Freudian psychology, and the three laws of robotics, to form its story of brainy philologist Professor Morbius, stranded on planet Altair IV. Left to his own devices, Morbius harnesses the planet’s elementary force in order to set up a private domain for himself and his comely daughter. When an investigating intergalactic space patrol invades his pet aradise and attempts to take him back to Earth against his will, Morbius unleashes the planetary force in true mad scientist-gone-amok fashion. Disney special-effects artist Joshua Meador designed many of the animated sequences, and also drew the Id Monster. Two actors, Frankie Carpenter and former Little Tough Guy Frankie Darro, played the mechanical sprite Robby the Robot, whose voice is supplied by Marvin Miller of the TV-series The Millionaire. Prosaically directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox, it stars Walter Pidgeon as Morbius, Anne Francis as his daughter Altaira, Leslie Nielsen (in his serious-acting phase) as the dry Commander Adams, Warren Stevens as Doc, Jack Kelly as Lt. Farnum, Richard Anderson as Chief Quinn, Earl Holliman as the Cook, and James Drury as Strong. Forbidden Planet is frequently cited as one of the best examples of intelligent science fiction writing ever committed to film. It’s a little static in spots and some of the dialogue is a bit childish. Still, it’s a milestone in its use of a futuristic, non-orchestral score (called “electronic tonalities” in the opening credits) by novices Louis and Bebe Barron. Filmed in the ultra-CinemaScope widescreen process, the beautiful matte paintings, sets and cyclorama are a must in glorious Technicolor.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

Maggie Smith, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint & Daniel Radcliffe (guardian.co.uk)

Extremely faithful (too faithful, perhaps) rendering of J.K Rowling’s wonderful children’s novel about the young wizard, Harry Potter, and the discovery of his new-found magical abilities. When he learns of his powers, he’s sent off to hone them at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Many memorable moments, including the congregation of owls scene at the Dursley’s, Hagrid’s door-busting entrance, the fog-enshrouded ride to Hogwart’s, the fabulous Quidditch match, the troll attack in the girl’s lavatory, and the encounter with the Dark Lord in the Forbidden Forest. For the adults, there’s outstanding acting by a veritable Who’s Who of Her Majesty’s supporting players, including Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore, Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid, and Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, the snooty Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. There’s even a cameo by that old scene-stealer, John Hurt, as Mr. Olivander, purveyor of fine wands since 362 B.C. For the kiddies, there are star-making turns by the young Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as his redheaded buddy Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson as the bookish Hermione Granger. A flavorful score by the veteran John Williams, destined to become a classic, is pure icing on this frothy concoction, directed in grand style by Chris Columbus. The same sensibility that gave us such literary classics as David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and, in particular, Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days (doesn’t Draco Malfoy remind you of the recalcitrant Flashman?) is at work here, and only deepens one’s admiration of, and appreciation for, Rowling’s genius for invention. Some scenes are a bit too intense for younger viewers, especially the entrance of the evil wizard Voldemort. Otherwise, this is fine family entertainment and very highly recommended.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Richard Harris, Daniel Radcliffe, Jason Isaacs (listal.com)

In content and in style, it’s a rehash of J.K. Rowling’s first novel. In this second film adaptation of young Mr. Potter’s adventures at Hogwart’s School of Magic and Witchcraft, the Dickensian flavor and boarding school ethic are kept intact, as well as the dark tone of the original. Although far less suspenseful, it’s worth watching for the wonderful repartee of seasoned pros Kenneth Branagh as the foppish Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, and Jason Isaacs as the malevolently unctuous Lucius Malfoy. Isaacs is hardly in this one at all, but steals every second of screen time he’s in: he brilliantly underplays his part to superb effect, a terrific casting coup. Daniel Radcliffe, as the titular hero, has noticeably matured since his last outing, as has the aptly named Rupert Grint as best pal Ron; however, both have grown comfortably into their respective roles. Emma Watson as Hermione has far less to do this time around, but makes due of the reduced screen time quite nicely, thank you. Also providing delicious takes are the returning Richard Harris (in his last screen appearance) as Dumbledore, Maggie Smith as the sad-eyed Professor McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, and Alan Rickman as the suspicious Professor Snape. The actor who plays the villainous Tom Riddle (and shall go nameless) is ineffectual, but blame the novel for that. His role is grievously underwritten. Some of the special effects are good, if far from original, especially Dobby the house-elf, the enchanted flying car, and the nighttime spider attack (not at all as scary as it ought ot be). Errol, the Weasley’s scatterbrained owl, is definitely a hoot, though. In all, a good sophomore effort by director Chris Columbus, but the novelty is wearing off, and it goes on for much too long.

Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994)

Kirsten Dunst as Claudia (thefancarpet.com)

Fans of Anne Rice’s Gothic romance were both pleased and perturbed with this cinematic version of her book, which stars four of Hollywood’s young hunks in differing roles: Brad Pitt as the melancholy Louis, Tom Cruise as his companion and nemesis Lestat, Christian Slater (in the part originally slated for River Phoenix before his untimely passing) as the Interviewer, and Antonio Banderas as the mysterious Armand, the Father of All Vampires. Twelve-year-old Kirsten Dunst all-but steals the show with her petulant portrayal of child-vampire Claudia. Her brazenly cold-blooded waif sends shivers down the spine. Stephen Rea is good as a theatrical fop, and the costumes and sets, especially the Grand Guignol Théâtre des Vampires and underground Parisian catacombs, are atmospheric and incandescent. The film is one long and supremely sad symphony of death, however, devoting a major portion of running time to what it’s like to live as one of the undead. For instance, the realist Lestat veers markedly from the comic to the sadistic in the blink of an eye. His counterpart, Louis, expresses remorse with self-loathing at what he has become, while the doll-like Claudia’s insatiable thirst for blood makes her the vilest and cruelest of the lot. One of the film’s themes is that of vampires playing house, a dysfunctional family threesome vying for a “normal” home life as they suck the life out of others. Despite many blood-soaked and stomach-churning scenes, including graphic neck bites and grisly rat-squeezing cocktails (slurp, slurp), Interview with the Vampire has an anemic story line that nearly drains the movie of life. The excellent score is by Elliot Goldenthal, a major contribution. The opening movement of mournful voices, with the viola da gamba on the soundtrack and a boy soprano intoning the Libera me (“Deliver me”) sets the mood of despondency and despair, harkening back to Bach and the Baroque era. It returns late in the picture after the horrifying demise of Claudia and her newly transformed “mother.” The cinematography is overwhelmingly dark and follows the prevailing brownish color pattern, a visual metaphor for decay. Stylishly directed by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), who brings a postmodern AIDS sensibility to the proceedings — an idea not at all present in Rice’s original work but fascinating all the same — the film became a box-office hit, despite the bleak story line and downbeat script.

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Lionel Barrymore & James Stewart (1×57.com)

There was a time when producer-director Frank Capra’s bleak look into a dystopian middle-America was shunned by critics and audiences. After years of neglect, however, it eventually built up a solid following via frequent public television screenings. James Stewart is wonderful as Everyman George Bailey, stuck in a rut in small-town suburbia but forever longing to break out of its restrictive confines, only to discover that life is “wonderful” just as it is. Donna Reed adds a homey touch as his patient wife Mary, a warm-up for her later TV-outing in The Donna Reed Show. Every employee’s worst nightmare, curmudgeonly town banker Lionel Barrymore, is the perpetually scowling Scrooge-like Mr. Potter, who makes George’s life a living hell — or is it the other way around? Many memorable moments throughout, with fine performances from the large and colorful cast, including Henry Travers as befuddled angel second-class Clarence, H.B. Warner as the alcoholic druggist Mr. Gower, Beulah Bondi as George’s mom, Thomas Mitchell as absentminded Uncle Billy (“I’m all right, I’m aaaaaaaaalll right”), Gloria Grahame as the tarty Violet, Ward Bond as Bert, Frank Faylen as Ernie (!), and Samuel S. Hinds, Frank Albertson, Mary Treen, Lillian Randolph, Sheldon Leonard, Todd Karns, and others in supporting roles. Every part is perfectly cast, and there are numerous personal touches where one senses Capra slyly winking at his audience. Two tiny examples: the permanent look of disdain displayed by the manservant who pushes Potter’s wheelchair around; and the overly flirtatious exchanges between Violet and George. Endearing and heartwarming from beginning to end, it’s really a dark, noir-tinged nightmare of amazing acuity. George’s justly famous dream sequence near the end, where he imagines what life in his hometown would be like without him, has a staggering power to move, even after so many repeat viewings. The character’s slow descent into a bottomless pit, and his pained expression of dread at the horrible realization of what has transpired, are absolutely unforgettable. The film proved to be a test-run for Stewart’s strenuous work in such pictures as Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, Vertigo, and others. The spare score is by Dimitri Tiomkin. For once, the director has invested his film with more spice than nice, despite the cornball contrivances (for example, the opening scene in Heaven, and the all-too cheery finale). Essential viewing nonetheless.

King Kong (1933)

King Kong (www.wikipedia.org)

Known as the picture that saved a studio – RKO Radio Pictures Studio, to be exact – this granddaddy of all those big, bad stomping, monster-on-the-loose chomping fantasy epics is every bit the classic it’s cranked up to be. One of the greatest special effects extravaganzas of all time, King Kong did for New York what Godzilla would later do for Tokyo: that is, it immortalized a city, as well as almost single handedly destroyed it – in cinematic terms, of course. It also lifted Depression Era audiences to ecstatic heights. This box-office champion was the brainchild of two men, veteran movie-maker Merian C. Cooper and his partner Ernest B. Schoedsack, both of who directed and produced the feature, based on an original story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace. For the stop-motion wizardry, Cooper turned to FX man Willis O’Brien (The Lost World), who in turn looked to model maker Marcel Delgado for the gorilla and dinosaur miniatures that figured so prominently throughout. Restless movie mogul Carl Denham (an overly enthusiastic Robert Armstrong) searches for the perfect angle for his next project. Upon meeting impoverished Ann Darrow (lovely Fay Wray, who bleached her dark hair blonde for the shoot), he impulsively decides to star her in his upcoming adventure flick. In the blink of an eye, we’re whisked away on a long sea voyage to… who knows where. Once our adventurers arrive on Skull Island, all hell breaks loose – quite literally, in fact – along with an enormous ape named Kong, dubbed by Denham “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” After knocking the giant gorilla out with gas bombs, the publicity-minded producer manages to ship Kong back to Broadway, where the monkey makes an unscheduled debut on the city’s streets and atop its tallest building. The sturdy cast is headed by Armstrong, who makes mincemeat out of his manic character. Wray is the all-time champion screamer, but don’t let that fool you — she is full of pluck and spunk to spare. Lantern-jawed Bruce Cabot is first mate Jack Driscoll, who falls in love with Ann after rescuing her from Kong’s monstrous clutches. Frank Reicher is the stern Captain Engelhorn, Sam Hardy the theatrical agent Weston, and James Flavin the second mate, with Victor Wong as Charley the Cook, Noble Johnson as the Native Chief, and Steve Clemento as the Witch Doctor. Look for cameos of Cooper and Schoedsack, who piloted the airplane that eventually brings the big guy down. Cooper was a World War I aviator who put his knowledge of flight to good use. He was also a pioneer in the three-strip Technicolor process. It would be a shame not to mention the powerful and highly influential movie score by Max Steiner, one Hollywood’s Golden Age best. No home should be without at least a DVD/Blu-ray disc copy of this superb film.

Lilo & Stitch (2002)

Stitch, Nani & Lilo (amazon.com)

Talk about a boy and his dog, this one’s a lame reworking of that familiar theme. In fact, it should have been re-titled Disney Goes to Hawaii via Social Services. In this case, the girl Lilo (voiced by Daveigh Chase), a lonely orphaned youngster with a sadistic streak — living in Hawaii and none-too-well cared for by older sister, Nani (Tia Carrere) — is in danger of being taken to a foster home by a humorless social worker. That night, Lilo “wishes upon a star” (sound familiar?) to bring her a plaything she can relate to. Suddenly, from deep space, comes what looks like a cross between a rag-eared koala with fangs and an irascible iguana. This creature, whom she calls Stitch, is one of the most unlikable and least cuddly critters the Disney artists have ever penciled. It’s totally lacking in charm, fuzziness or warmth. Programmed for destructive behavior (now there’s a modern twist for you), it’s not even kid-friendly, which, in view of the film’s target audience, sort of defeats the purpose, don’t you think? The humans show significantly more emotion than the norm for a Disney feature, as the plot drags on to its prefabricated conclusion, a pretty by-the-numbers chase sequence with the usual sappy resolution. Despite being beautifully hand-drawn, and with little computer-aided animation, the story never takes off either as family entertainment or as sci-fi fantasy. It’s far too serious for little tykes, with not enough fresh ideas to maintain our interest. The early scenes on a faraway planet with otherworldly aliens, including one that resembles an over-sized Charlie the Tuna, are colorful, and most of the voiceover work is eminently respectable. However, the usually dependable David Ogden Stiers is seriously hampered by an impenetrable Russian accent as Jumba, the alien-scientist who created Stitch. Ving Rhames is coolness personified as former CIA agent-turned-social worker Cobra Bubbles (don’t ask). Stitch is voiced by Christopher Sanders, Kevin McDonald is the one-eyed Earth expert Pleakley (shades of Mike Wazowski from Monsters, Inc.), Jason Scott Lee is Nani’s boyfriend David, and the ageless Zoe Caldwell does a guest shot as the Grand Councilwoman (or -thing). Very disappointing summer movie fare. Read a good book instead.

Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensson, Elijah Wood, Ian McKellan, Orlando Bloom & Cate Blanchett (scottriggan.com)

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s hugely popular trilogy about hobbits, orcs, wizards, elves, dwarves, and trolls, this first of three simultaneously filmed productions was lavishly lensed in New Zealand by fledgling kiwi director Peter Jackson. It took guts, money, and vision (not to mention nerve) to bring Tolkien’s rambling saga to the screen — and Jackson and his fellow co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, can be credited for having taken a brave first step with this outstanding entry. The plot revolves around the return of an all-powerful ring to Mount Doom where it was forged. Taking up this quest are a disparate group of nine intrepid travelers. The journey has been fleshed out in parts, and certain characters have been given greater prominence (Liv Tyler’s expanded part, for instance), or eliminated altogether (the much-lamented Tom Bombadil). Nevertheless, the plot is propelled forward by a multi-talented cast, including the statuesque Ian McKellan as Gandalf, owl-eyed Elijah Wood as Frodo (bearer of the One Ring), Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins, and Cate Blanchett, rugged Viggo Mortenson, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Sean Bean, John Rhys-Davies, Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith of The Matrix series), the aforementioned Tyler, and the ever-effective Christopher Lee as the evil wizard Saruman. This was Lee’s second feature in a row, followed by his Count Dooku in Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Not bad for an octogenarian. There’s a literal cast of thousands, all good, in this grand screen entertainment. The excellent score, highly influenced by Richard Wagner’s mighty epic, The Ring of the Nibelung (a close cousin, story-wise), is by Canadian composer Howard Shore, with a little help from Enya at the end. Beautiful cinematography, stunning effects, and superb miniature work (all with the aid of the technical wizards at Weta Workshop), and a lovely evocation of Hobbiton by the set and costume designers, contribute to an exciting three hours plus (in the extended version, available on DVD and Blu-ray – highly recommended). It’s more robust and entertaining than Tolkien’s episodic novels were ever meant to be, but it’s still a bloody-good show. Three cheers for all (I’ll have a pint to go, please).

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Mike & Sully (the-reel-mccoy.com)

Monsters pop out of children’s closets, scaring them half to death in order to harness their screams into energy, thus powering the monsters’ modernistic city (how’s that for environmentally conscious?). Sounds like a great plot for a kid’s movie, right? And what a movie it is! The cartoon-friendly folks at Pixar Studios have developed this extraordinary idea into a delightful CGI feature about two friends at a giant corporation called Monsters, Inc., the big blue (IBM-pun intended) furry monster, James P. “Sully” Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman), and his ambitious one-eyed partner, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal). The trouble begins when Sully inadvertently opens the wrong closet, and lets a little girl he calls Boo into the plant, who immediately makes her child-like presence felt. He and Mike spend the rest of the film trying to return Boo to her bedroom before the Monster Goon Squad hauls them away to be stripped and scrubbed. Exposure to little kids, you see, can be quite hazardous to the monsters’ health. Outrageous plot devices and snappy one-liners make this a fast-moving, heart-tugging tale for toughs and tykes of all ages. It drags slightly toward the end, but the endearing vocal and computer-animated performances of Goodman and Crystal, as well as Steve Buscemi as a (literally) slimy villain, and James Coburn as the head of the corporation, elevate it above the usual trite kiddie fare. The role of Roz is a riot, as are the “outtakes” at the end – a welcome Pixar add-on. While not as entertaining or as fresh as the Toy Story movies, it’s still a job well done by the Pixar crew. The big city-corporation idea bears comparison to Osmosis Jones.

The Mummy (1999)

Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz & John Hannah (dailymail.co.uk)

Having nothing in particular to do with the classic Boris Karloff version from the 1930s, The Mummy is far superior technically to most films of the genre, but devoid of the requisite chills the story demands. It’s strictly tongue-in-cheek, played mostly for laughs. Many of the gags are more in the spirit of silly slapstick, or a Saturday-matinee kiddie caper, than a grisly horror tale — but that’s okay with us! The film stars Rachel Weisz as a bumbling British archeologist in search of the City of the Dead, John Hannah as her ne’er-do-well brother, and Brendan Fraser as a down-on-his-luck soldier of fortune. Kevin J. O’Connor plays the hapless servant Beni, Israeli actor Oded Fehr displays his matinee-idol looks as a defender of the dead, and Arnold Vosloo is the proto-wrestling incarnation of Imhotep. Also appearing is veteran character actor Bernard Fox as forlorn English pilot Winston (!), and Jonathan Hyde as a condescending Egyptologist. As an adventure yarn, it’s better than the misguided The Phantom of a few years back, or the underrated The Shadow, but not by much. Along with the latter, it shares an exotic score by Jerry Goldsmith, the resident dean of movie composers. Good computer graphics and miraculous transformations, however, do not a horror-movie make. There’s a feeling this whole show plays better at home, where the warm sunset colors and sweeping romantic vistas can be savored at one’s leisure. Still, there’s something likable, in a goofy sort of way, about the finished product, due primarily to the fine flair for fun shown by the energetic cast. The premise is suspect even in our cynical TV age, but don’t take it too seriously.

Osmosis Jones (2001)

Osmosis Jones (science10buryn.wordpress.com)

A big vulgar, grown-up teenager movie, directed by the Farrelly brothers in the tradition of such barf classics as Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Animal House, but with a twist: part of the action takes place inside Bill Murray’s body. It’s this aspect, and the cartoon city within it, that’s most fascinating and winning. This marvelous animated metropolis is one long, continuous freeway, replete with its own arrival and departure port, speakeasy, mayor, press secretary, and single-cell police force. The animation is indeed original, colorful and imaginative. What’s missing is a truly engaging story to tie the ‘toons to their real-life counterparts: one longs for Jones and his cohorts to break out of Murray’s body and take the focus away from the obviously uncomfortable human actors. The voiceover work is commendable throughout, and features motor-mouth Chris Rock as Osmosis Jones, David Hyde Pierce as a cold tablet, William Shatner (lampooning his Captain Kirk persona) as the Mayor, Ron Howard as the opposition candidate, and a solemnly sinister Laurence Fishburne as the evil virus Thrax. Murray plays a more disgusting version of himself (now there’s an original thought), a slovenly Crocodile Hunter-type, who dearly loves his young daughter but fails to take proper care of his body’s hygienic needs. Chris Elliott plays his equally unkempt partner. It’s wicked in parts, more than a little gross at times, and blatantly predictable, too. Some truly hilarious scenes are interspersed with more mundane moments. While the film is not entirely a success, it can be recommended for older kids. Lots of crude noises and flatulence jokes galore for the easily offended (yours truly not among them).

The Right Stuff (1983)

Scott Glenn, Fred Ward, Glenn Harris & Dennis Quaid (supertemporal.wordpress.com)

Breaking the sound barrier, the dawn of the space race, and the Mercury Project, all rolled up into a solid, three-hour-plus Wild West road-show on rockets. The book by Tom Wolfe, on which the movie is based, is a detailed look into the early U.S. space program, starting with the story of maverick test pilot Chuck Yeager and the unsung heroes of jet flight, followed by the Mercury astronauts, their selection and training, and finally their individual voyages. The film pretty much follows the book’s outline. There are amazing recreations of the X-1’s solo flights seamlessly merged with actual newsreel footage of the historic launches. The inspiring music is by Bill Conti, with parts of Gustav Holst’s The Planets tossed in for good measure, and the outstanding photography is by Caleb Deschanel. Directed by Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) with real cowboy swagger and grit. The laconic delivery and matter-of-fact speech patterns of the protagonists are uncannily captured. Some critics see this as a Saturday Night Live sketch of the space race, with several important characters treated as buffoons. From all accounts, it really was like that. Wonderful sixties ambiance, uniquely and vividly portrayed. Note the flicking camera shutters every time the reporters appear. Should make a valuable companion piece to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, which covers similar ground but in less satiric fashion. There’s a real reverence for space travel and the brave men, women and vision it took to conquer it. Themes we take for granted — loyalty, teamwork, the love and support of family, and doing what’s right in spite of insurmountable odds — are all present here in unforgettable vignettes. The entire film is movingly acted by a large ensemble cast that boasts Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey, Pamela Reed, Veronica Cartwright, Donald Moffat as Lyndon Johnson, Lance Henricksen, Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer in major and minor roles, along with the real-life Chuck Yeager as a barkeep. The narrator is the late Levon Helm, who plays Ridley and was The Band’s drummer for many years.

Brad Pitt & Morgan Freeman (mcneilmatinee.blogspot.com)

Se7en (1995)

Perpetually gray rainfall, dark and dingy urban blight, neo-noir trappings, deranged human behavior, and insane delusional serial killings. These are just a few of the plot points covered in director David Fincher’s disturbing ode to Thomas Harris territory. In fact, it’s a shade less gruesome (by a nose, so to speak) than many an episode of The X-Files, but infinitely better written. A series of big city murders are being committed in which the killer follows the pattern of the seven deadly sins. He makes himself out to be the sole avenging angel of the gluttonous, the greedy, the lustful, the prideful, the slothful, the envious, and the wrathful. One thankfully never gets a real good look at the murders, but the way they’re handled and discussed — amid the overpoweringly murky images, the grainy camerawork, the disgusting trash-ridden sets and decor, and the prevailing feeling of oppression and hopelessness – are all given exemplary treatment by Fincher, screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, and cinematographer Darius Khondji; the viewer has the eerie sensation that all is not well within this city. The surprise denouement is disturbing, but telegraphed slightly. Excellent work by Morgan Freeman, as veteran detective William Somerset (what, no Maugham?) on his last week before retirement, and cocky Brad Pitt as David Mills, the eager, hot-tempered rookie assigned to him. Pitt downplays his teen-idol tendencies to give us a real person behind the brashness, and Freeman’s total command of his poetry-spouting character provides keen insight into this tired, trapped old man. Gwyneth Paltrow appears as Pitt’s sweetly vulnerable wife, and R. Lee Ermey is Freeman’s boss. The mysterious killer (unbilled Kevin Spacey) only materializes at the end, but keep your eyes open, especially during the credits, as he appears throughout the drama in the least likely of places. Quite a mind bender, the film merits repeated viewings to decipher all of its carefully constructed clues. A winner, though not for the faint of heart.

Signs (2001)

Mel Gibson & Rory Culkin (allmoviephoto.com)

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds gets a modern makeover in this deliberately paced but more-than-effective suspense thriller from the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. One of its many virtues is the lack of elaborate special FX to distract viewers from the main story line. The plot involves mysterious crop circles found in Mel Gibson’s cornfield, but that’s only a cover: are enemy aliens really about to invade the Earth, or is it a form of mass hysteria? Director M. Night Shyamalan knows how to handle numerous tidbits of minutiae, piling on hint after hint in subtle and ingenious ways, until the viewer becomes unaware of the full extent of his manipulation. He also has a cameo in a key role as a neighbor harboring an uninvited house guest. Gibson plays a grieving, disillusioned ex-minister who needs a healthy dollop of faith to snap him back to reality after his wife is killed in a horrific traffic accident. He must learn to cope with the loss without his customary assurance and bravado. Gibson is filled with a coiled tension that manifests itself at key points in the drama, particularly during his son’s asthmatic attacks and in his family’s flight to the cellar. Joaquin Phoenix is particularly adept as his sad-sack brother Merrill, a former baseball pro who still knows how to swing a bat. The kids are wonderfully played by Rory Culkin (Macaulay’s little brother) and the adorable Abigail Breslin; the eerily subliminal film-score is by James Newton Howard, done as homage to the late master, Bernard Herrmann: there are noticeable traces of Psycho and Vertigo abounding in it. There are also numerous references to The Birds and other Hitchcock thrillers. A must-see for fans of the genre, despite a few protracted scenes. Stay with this one all the way, though, as you’ll be amply rewarded for the effort. It should play better on DVD and Blu-ray. Take the PG-13 rating seriously.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Bruce Willis & Haley Joel Osment (halloweenmoviesontv.com)

A film that seeps into one’s subconscious at odd hours and times. Essentially, it’s a modern ghost story told in existential terms. Child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (a laid-back Bruce Willis) tries desperately to help antisocial patient Cole Sear, a young boy with a most unusual problem: he sees dead people (no kidding!). Both learn their proper place in the world through a series of passive-emotional shrink sessions interspersed with ghostly visions. The film establishes its own ground rules, and wisely keeps to them. One of the few modern productions that’s as much a joy to see as it is to listen to, with many intelligent plot points to ponder. It’s cleverly written (one could say too clever by half) and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The sound design plays an integral part in the drama, as does the rich color scheme and gorgeous cinematography of Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs). James Newton Howard wrote the creepy musical score. Willis is superb as the child psychologist, and the talented Haley Joel Osment plays the boy, Cole. As actors, they have an amiable working relationship that gives their characters needed believability. The surprise ending will both shock and perplex, thus forcing you to go over the entire film from the beginning. Toni Collette plays Cole’s mom. Donnie Wahlberg (ex-New Kid on the Block) lost 40 pounds to play Willis’ crazed former patient, Vincent Grey. Glenn Fitzgerald is Cole’s teacher Stuttering Stanley, and Shyamalan appears unbilled role as a doctor (in honor of his parents, who are both physicians). An excellent effort by all concerned, and a big winner at the gate. See it, if you can, but not with small children: there are a few intense scenes scattered throughout.

Spider-Man (2001)

Tobey Maguire & Kirsten Dunst (imbd.com)

Cult director Sam Raimi first tried his hand at a comic book superhero in 1990’s stylish Darkman. But the lead character’s tortured soul proved a bit too dark for movie audiences and Raimi’s own further examination. Stepping up to Marvel Comic’s classic action hero Spider-Man, he now gives us the back-story of the troubled teen web-swinger, first drawn in the mid-sixties by artist Stan Lee. Toby Maguire is just right as the geeky, would-be news photographer Peter Parker, who, when bitten by a genetically mutated spider, is transformed into the title character. He’s smitten with the lovely Mary Jane Watson, sensitively played by ravishingly red-haired Kirsten Dunst. Willem Dafoe is the nasty millionaire villain with a conscience, the Green Goblin; Rosemary Harris is Peter’s doting Aunt May, James Franco is his best friend Harry, and Cliff Robertson lends fine support as Spidey’s gentle Uncle Ben, whose tragic death is the main catalyst for our hero’s existence. High production values and state-of-the-art special effects, produced by veteran John Dykstra, add up to a satisfying big-screen adventure. It doesn’t receive a higher rating in my book due to two factors: one, the middling and somewhat derivative score by Danny Elfman, a big letdown after so many truly great ones for Raimi and Tim Burton; and two, the director has dipped his hand in this trough before with Darkman and The Evil Dead series. Raimi regular Bruce Campbell appears in a bit part as the ring announcer, and dearly departed pro wrestler Randy “Macho Man” Savage has an amusing cameo as the bone-crushing Bone Saw. The opening titles are imaginatively done in a style reminiscent of Saul Bass, a Hitchcock favorite. The bittersweet ending is true to its comic-book origins, and wraps up the story nicely – along with setting up the inevitable sequel. It could’ve been a rousing four-star chart buster; instead, it’s only a contender.

Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Liam Neeson, Jake Lloyd, R2-D2 & Ewan McGregor (movies.yahoo.com)

After a hiatus of nearly sixteen years, producer-director George Lucas returned to his space-opera roots with this highly anticipated continuation of the story of Anakin Skywalker’s human origins. Was the wait worth it? Only die-hard fans will tell, for this version is long on plot but short on character development. When the computer-generated images become the main focal point – and real protagonists – of the convoluted plot, you know the series has been set adrift. Critics complained of the irritating nature of some of the characters, especially CGI-created Jar-Jar Binks, who comes across as a cacophonous Caribbean caricature. Personally, his computerized antics provide much-needed comic relief from the human torpor, chief among them the completely inept portrayal of little Anakin Skywalker by Jake Lloyd (Jingle All the Way). The young actor is totally out of his element, and seemingly incapable of displaying any emotion beyond pouting indifference. Blame for his performance in what is essentially the key role in the series should be placed squarely on Lucas’ shoulders: he’s abandoned the idea of directing people in lieu of interacting with pixels. He also forgot to create a real flesh-and-blood character for Lloyd to play. Amidst the over-abundance of special FX, some of which are truly spectacular (particularly the supersonic desert pod race), the other actors tend to flounder, especially the normally dependable Liam Neeson as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, Ewan McGregor as his young apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi, Natalie Portman as Princess Amidala, Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine (the future Lord Sidious), and Samuel L. Jackson, totally wasted as Mace Windu. A new CGI-drawn Yoda makes a brief and welcome appearance, but the highly touted villain Darth Maul, played by the athletic Ray Park (X-Men II) is weak, ineffectual, and completely lacking in true menace. The saving graces of this production are the marvelously flamboyant costumes (Trisha Biggar) and the outrageous hairdos, obviously inspired by Japanese Kabuki and Noh Theater; and the exceptionally rousing musical score by movie veteran John Williams, one of his recent best. Unfortunately, the film goes on too long, with enough subplots and over-complications for ten episodes let alone two more.

Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Hayden Christensen & Natalie Portman (totalfilm.com)

Much better (story-wise) than Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the second installment in the newly reinvigorated Star Wars saga is more interesting to watch, with movement and color in just about every frame. Indeed, the first 20 minutes or so are truly spectacular, but then the plot comes to a grinding halt as the forced romance between Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and the post-pubescent Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is inevitably played out. Their onscreen relationship doesn’t ring true, and is treated as no more than a perfunctory plot twist. Viewers will be hard pressed to find any passion in their looks and embraces. The headstrong Anakin is just as irritating in Episode II as he was in Episode I; although he’s played by a much better actor, it’s still an ungratefully written part. The basic problem with the formula is that we already know, ahead of time, where this relationship is going and where these characters will end up; there’s no element of surprise to any of this. And the romantic music written by John Williams for Anakin and Amidala is just a warmed-over version of the Han Solo-Princess Leia theme, while the entire film score is a reworking of the best parts of The Phantom Menace, a major cop-out. Ewan McGregor continues to sound the right note as a continually maturing Obi-Wan Kenobi, who here displays his superior investigative skills. Whenever he’s on screen the film comes alive. Also featuring Temuera Morrison as Jango Fett, father to bounty hunter Boba Fett. There are more elaborate computer-generated images and special effects in this production than in any other in the series, including a very drawn-out (and derivative) battle sequence in a gladiatorial arena. But all this hardware is mind numbing. One longs for some relief from the noise and turmoil. Thank goodness it arrives, in the frail presence of Master Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) and the still athletic Christopher Lee as Count Dooku. Their climactic light saber duel is a highlight amid the awkward romantic lulls. Still, the Force is strong with this one: this effort is galaxies ahead of Episode I , despite the over-preponderance of plot. The dreaded Jar-Jar Binks has a walk-on in this sequel. Do I hear an “amen”?

Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Hayden Christensen (kritickarim.tumblr.com)

In a word, wow! Sci-fi auteur George Lucas completely redeemed himself, in this reviewer’s eyes, with this excellent third entry in the second Star Wars series (are you following me?). Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker, played once again by Hayden Christensen, finally turns to the dreaded Dark Side and emerges as Lord Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones), in what has to be the most satisfying of the three movies devoted to his origin story. Writer-director Lucas ties up all the loose ends – and winds up exactly at the point where Episode IV picks up – with an extraordinarily layered film that takes the saga to truly epic heights, a Greek tragedy with an unrelenting forward thrust so obviously lacking in his previous entries. All the emotional involvement that was so far missing is presented here in generous dollops. Natalie Portman shows welcome spunk as Padme Amidala, pregnant with Anakin’s twin children. As Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ewan McGregor emotes poignantly at the loss of his close friend and brother in arms Anakin, while Ian McDiarmid as the slimy Chancellor Palpatine (later the self-appointed Emperor of the Galactic Empire) seduces him to chilling effect in one of the series’ most remarkable scenes at the “space opera,” of all places, where Lucas and his daughter have a brief walk-on. The film both opens and closes in slam-bang fashion. The CGI-created General Grievous, a marvelous new bad guy (with a nagging tubercular cough, no less), lends excellent support, along with the returning Temuera Morrison as Commander Cody (a nod to the 1940s Rocket Man serial), Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, and Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Jimmy Smits as Senator Organa, and the voice of Frank Oz as feisty Jedi Master Yoda. Anakin’s fiery finish was criticized for being ripped off from the finale to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, specifically the demise of Gollum at Mount Doom in Return of the King. Let’s hope Mr. Lucas decides to leave the series alone for now, and not try to tinker with it as he’s done with Episodes IV, V and VI. The stirring fanfare-like music of John Williams is preserved in all its stereophonic glory. Go grab a box of popcorn and enjoy, folks!

Superman (1978)

Christopher Reeve as Superman (toutlecine.com)

Best super hero movie ever? You betcha! And a benchmark for all subsequent features in that most challenging of fantasy genres, the super-hero action flick. In the manner of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2001),whose tag line was “With great power comes great responsibility,” young Clark Kent (Jeff East – excellent, by the way, despite that ill-fitting wig) spills his guts to his beloved, gray-haired old foster mother (a sympathetic Phyllis Thaxter) after the sudden death of his foster father (dependable Glenn Ford): “All those things I can do, all those powers… And I couldn’t even save him.” It’s a heartbreaking moment. But the words come back to haunt him when the now mature Clark (a beefed up Christopher Reeve), in his normal guise as Superman, confronts an even more personal loss. His dilemma is resolved in one of the many fantastic special FX sequences that permeate the drama – done the old-fashioned way, of course, with optical, photographic, and manual techniques, including miniatures, wires, cranes, matte paintings, composites, and the like – in what surely was a supreme challenge for director Richard Donner and his talented crew. What struck most viewers the most was the overwhelming sense of joy prevalent throughout the production, credit for which must go to Donner for keeping everyone’s spirits up in what proved to be a long and tedious shoot. Reeve became an overnight sensation, and an idol to millions of fans the world over, for his admirable – no, stupendous – acting assignment as both the Man of Steel and mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. Margot Kidder is perfectly cast as The Daily Planet’s ace news hound, Lois Lane. Although it was rumored they clashed constantly over their respective roles, she and Reeve hit it off like brother and sister, so we’re told. Gene Hackman gets to show his comedic side with a hilarious take on evil genius Lex Luthor, while Valerie Perrine as buxom girlfriend Eve Teschmacher and Ned Beatty as the oafish Otis provide firm support. Jackie Cooper is tough-minded editor Perry White, with Marc McClure as cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. There’s even a cameo by real-life movie critic Rex Reed. Back on planet Krypton, portly Marlon Brando is a most impressive Jor-El (he should be, for what Warner Brothers paid him), as are (albeit briefly) his arch nemeses Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran, whose stories are told in Superman II (shot simultaneously, but released two years later). Mario Puzo wrote the original screenplay, doctored up by David and Leslie Newman, as well as Robert Benton. And who could forget that memorable John Williams score, from a composer who’s provided us with so many countless screen classics. There’s even a hit song, “Can You Read My Mind,” spoken in voiceover by Kidder during that incredible flying sequence with Supie. After almost four decades it’s still a tremendous piece of moviemaking. Our favorite episodes are the overlooked ones in Smallville: beautifully realized by East, Ford and Thaxter, they’re a nostalgic slice of bucolic middle-American life from a kinder, gentler, and more compassionate time. The expanded edition adds little to what is already a must-see for the whole family.

The Thing (From Another World) (1951)

George Fenneman, Robert Cornthwaite, Margaret Sheridan & Kenneth Tobey (ferdyonfilms.com)

Quintessential fifties sci-fi, eerily mirroring the Communist threat of that period and echoing the American response to it. The film is in Howard Hawk’s inimitable “chatty” style, i.e., overlapping dialogue with staccato delivery, although the direction is credited to his assistant, Christian Nyby. Hawks deigned only to produce it. A flying saucer is found frozen in the Arctic Polar Region. Alerted to its presence, a salvage team of research scientists and military men head out to intercept it. They accidentally destroy the ship, only to find the alien passenger onboard is still very much alive (when thawed out, that is). The film provides a fair amount of suspense, but it’s too timid in its execution to furnish more than casual thrills. Certainly the Frankenstein-monster getup for the invader is a major faux pas. The Thing, played by James Arness in his salad days, is nowhere near as frightening or repugnant as it ought to be, considering the source material (John W. Campbell’s short story, “Who Goes There?”) and how it’s described on the screen. The camaraderie and forced bravado of the military men, along with their testosterone-driven tendencies toward combating the creature, are, quite naturally, understandable, in view of the times in which the film was made: science takes a back seat to sheer bluster and Yankee gung-ho ingenuity. The great ensemble cast features many familiar faces, among them Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, Dewey Martin, Robert Cornthwaite, George Fenneman, John Dierkes, Paul Frees, and Douglas Spencer, whose final call to “Keep watching the skies” is a none-too-subtle alert against future Red menaces. The theremin-based film score is by Dimitri Tiomkin. It’s not the classic some critics have made it out to be, but like Puccini’s opera Tosca, it’s a “shabby little shocker” that still packs a wallop.

The Thing (1982)

Kurt Russell (horrornovice.blogspot.com)

With Alien having rejuvenated the vogue for chest-bursting monsters and outer-space horror flicks, director John Carpenter undertook to remake the old fifties staple The Thing – this time with modern cinematic elements. Carpenter returns to the original idea of a shape-shifting being suggested by sci-fi writer John W. Campbell’s short story, “Who Goes There?” It told a tale of paranoia and loss of identity, but was written in the late 1930s, long before the threat of Communism and invaders from Mars would bug us out. While faithful to the original work “in theory,” and possessing top-notch special FX by the talented team of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, the film is so enamored of gore and viscera it forgets to keep its mind on the main plot. The element of fear and suspicion is present throughout, but there’s so little insight into the characters that they serve as mere backdrops for the real showcase: the creature that erupts all over the screen is without a doubt the vilest, most repulsive-looking Thing imaginable. It reminds one of a giant Venus flytrap. After a while, though, it even starts to take on the comic mannerisms of Audrey II, the “mean green mother from outer space,” in the musical The Little Shop of Horrors, which robs it of its ferocity. The story takes place at an Antarctic research facility, where American scientists are investigating the strange deaths at a nearby Norwegian installation. Before long, the Thing they bring back gets loose and starts to take over the minds (and bodies) of the individual researchers. The rugged, all-male cast is headed by Kurt Russell at his swaggering best, Wilford Brimley sans the walrus mustache, and Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat, Keith David, David Clennon, and others. Gut-wrenching scenes, along with a classic, pulsating electronic score by Ennio Morricone, are the pluses. The final confrontation leaves it up to the viewer whether this Thing has been vanquished or not. Strictly for lovers of elaborate effects. The Howard Hawks film was much more fun than this deadly-straight edition. Be warned: do not, by any means, let your kids see this alone (heck, I wouldn’t see it alone, either).

Unbreakable (2000)

Samuel L. Jackson (the-reel-mccoy.com)

Real-life superheroes don’t really exist, but it sure would be nice if they did – and this film charts the thought-provoking possibilities of such an event actually occurring. Director M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to his surprise hit The Sixth Sense is an ode to the world of comic-book lore. He’s one of the few filmmakers out there who can afford to take his time in telling a good story, while giving us plenty of food for thought along the way. The low-key approach he brings to the subject is much appreciated and clearly in the style of his earlier success. The film has its longeurs but is nonetheless well made. We learn there can be no “good” in this world without the coexistence of “evil,” and that what we perceive as the status quo is often not what it seems, as the search for one’s rightful place in it can turn into a lifelong, often-times fruitless endeavor. The acting is splendid, especially by Bruce Willis as security guard David Dunn, Samuel L. Jackson (whose coiffure was modeled after that of abolitionist Frederick Douglass) as Elijah Price, Charlayne Woodard as his concerned mom, Spencer Treat Clark (Gladiator) as Willis’ hero worshipping son, and Robin Penn Wright as Willis’ wife. The score is by James Newton Howard, and the muted cinematography is by Eduardo Serra. The physical look of the production closely resembles the panels of an actual comic book, and offers a unique perspective on comic-book art and its recent manifestations on the big screen. It predates the current trend in superhero action spectacles (X-Men, Spider-Man, Watchmen, Iron Man and their ilk), while treating the story with a childlike innocence and reverence for its existential viewpoint. A fascinating concept, though not totally convincing. Give the director (who also wrote the screenplay) high marks for trying. He even has a bit part as a suspicious-looking sports fan.

Vanilla Sky (2001)

Tom Cruise (film.thedigitalfix.com)

It’s déjà vu all over again – or is it – in this confounding film of psychobabble starring Tom Cruise (War of the Worlds) and his heartthrob of the moment, Penélope Cruz. Tom Terrific plays an egotistical publishing heir who’s involved in a life-altering traffic accident. Director Cameron Crowe and his main man teamed up again after the successful Jerry Maguire, to deliver an ambitious remake of the Spanish film Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos). But the plot of this new version is much too dense to fully satisfy, and the film meanders precariously over frequently tread Hitchcock territory. The final revelation is a distinct letdown. It’s all too puzzling to be totally enjoyable (or plausible, for that matter), despite the stellar cinematography and wintry atmosphere. This type of thing was done better in countless other pictures, including Total Recall, Dark City, and the sterling early works of M. Night Shyamalan. Penélope Cruz, who co-starred in the original, is just plain awful. She’s like that tacky tie your uncle gave you for Christmas: you can’t wait to put her away once Tom’s out of the picture. The principal pleasure of this flawed production, however, is the dazzling, spitfire performance by Cameron Diaz as Cruise’s bitterly rejected former lover. She pulls out all the stops in this one, and enthralls the viewer with her sizzling onscreen presence. With the exception of Diaz, the other actors, i.e., Kurt Russell as a sympathetic (but aren’t they all?) shrink, Jason Lee as Tom’s buddy, and the androgynous Tilda Swinton, contribute little, given that it’s Cruise’s show all the way. He’s very good in it, though, sort of a warm-up for his role in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, which is a much better picture. The film just can’t make up its mind whether it’s social commentary, a murder thriller, or a good old-fashioned science-fiction yarn. It has a couple of steamy bedroom scenes and some fairly frank dialogue.

Vertigo (1958)

James Stewart in Vertigo (gonemovies.com)

The most languid and least dialogue-driven film the great master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock ever directed, but also his most compelling. As the title suggests, Vertigo has an evocative visual pallet, with a fascinating opening title sequence designed by the great Saul Bass, along with a wonderful orchestral score of Wagnerian proportions (and pretensions) by veteran film composer Bernard Herrmann. On the whole, it’s a moral about unattainable obsessions, with an intensely driven, passionately felt performance by the unlikely James Stewart, as private detective Scotty; the gorgeous Kim Novak in a dual role as the women he “loves”; and Barbara Bel Geddes as Stewart’s wise-cracking, plain-Jane girlfriend Midge. Tom Helmore plays the suave and sophisticated Gavin Elster. A mesmerizing screen experience: you either love it or loathe it, but you can’t take your eyes off it. It’s more of an interesting movie experiment in the Hitchcock canon than a total success. It reflects the director’s skewed viewpoint vis-à-vis people’s interpersonal relationships and where they can ultimately lead to; and, as a result, is his most personal filmed statement. It did influence many future productions, and continues to gain a strong foothold on filmmakers’ imaginations to this day. The British magazine Sight & Sound recently hailed Vertigo as one of the best films ever made, toppling Citizen Kane from its lofty pedestal. Hypnotic, to say the least, it boasts one of Jimmy Stewart’s finest celluloid excursions ever. It was the last work he did for Hitch.

Willow (1988)

Warwick Davis & Val Kilmer (moarpoah.com)

This endearing throwback to the Saturday-afternoon matinee crowd runs both hot and cold, story-wise. It concerns a little person named Willow Ulfgood, whose sole desire in life is to become a great wizard to compensate for his small stature. True to adventure films of this type, Willow gets his wish but in completely unexpected fashion. The wonderful Warwick Davis performance in the all-important title part is what carries this picture along, in addition to a totally infectious and completely natural ones by the twin girls (Kate and Ruth Greenfield) who play the redheaded little baby princess, Elora. Davis had previously been Wicket, one of the Ewoks in Star Wars — Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. His success in that feature earned him a shot as the lead in this action-oriented, samurai-saga wannabe, directed by Ron Howard. Howard has much more of a flair for large-scale productions of this type, and a better working relationship with his actors, than the visionary George Lucas, who handled the producing chores here. There’s an equally strong lineup of future aspirants, beginning with Val Kilmer and Joanne Walley, who later became a short-lived husband and wife team, and older established players Jean Marsh, Frances Sternhagen and Billy Barty. James Horner composed the rousing music-score with an abundance of classical connotations, especially from Felix Mendelssohn. Observant viewers should catch the many references (and striking similarities) to the Star Wars plot, in addition to recycled Germanic and Norse legends and the later film-work of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa (Kagemusha — The Shadow Warrior, Ran), clearly a Lucas influence and afterthought. Although squarely aimed at the kiddy market, parents are strongly cautioned, as there are some scenes deemed too intense for young children. ☼

Copyright (c) 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes