Cinematic Greats: 48 Hrs.

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A great movie and an 80’s flashback in one!  Sometimes a movie just hits all the right notes.  That may sound clichéd, but hear me now and believe me later: 48 Hrs. is a fantastic, funny as hell movie with a great Dirty Harry-inspired villain and a thrilling storyline — much more than one could expect in Eddie Murphy’s debut.

If you never saw it, do yourself a favor and catch 48 Hrs., an essential picture that holds its place among the many great movies of the period.

Availability: Netflix

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Flashdance Flashback

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Sundance HD has been airing Flashdance (1983) recently, which certainly puts the iconic 80’s hit in a new light.  Though it was one of my favorite films when it came out, the best viewing I could muster in my formative years was via VHS tape and 19″ Sony Trinitron.  55″ HD makes a big difference.

I was so impressed with what I saw that I considered a “Cinematic Greats” post.  Then I watched a little more and realized how meaningless that category would become once I threw Flashdance in with the likes of Bound, Fargo, and After Dark, My Sweet.  There is obvious cheese in no short quantity here — including the watered-down, Rocky-based plot — and Michael Nouri as the male lead is an absolute hack.

But the spirited dance numbers, original music, and Jennifer Beals’ winsome performance push it into positive territory.  I agree with the criticism out there, but when I see a Tomatometer rating of 33% while Blade Runner sits at 91% and is considered by many to be among the greatest of all films, well, that’s backwards-world.

Despite its flaws, Flashdance holds its place in the pantheon of iconic 80’s pictures, and, as such, is highly recommended and essential viewing — just make sure to watch in HD, and with decent sound.

Italian Essentials: Cinema Paradiso

Cinema Paradiso - poster largeMy sister recounts a remarkable tale involving three grand old movie houses:

Once a week for a period in the late 80’s and into the 90’s, the Riverside, California Fox Theater hosted viewings of independent and foreign films — which was the only way to see indies and foreign films in Riverside at the time, other than renting a videocassette.  The Fox was built in 1929, and besides being one of the old Fox movie palaces that sprung up around the nation in the 20’s and 30’s, holds its place in the history of cinema as the first theater to hold a public viewing of none other than GONE WITH THE WIND.

On this particular evening, my mother and sister (I was away at college) went to see at the Fox the great Italian love letter to old Hollywood and the movies, Cinema Paradiso.  While watching the movie, in which (minor SPOILER ALERT! — it happens about midway through) the old Italian movie house is brought to ashes by a fire started in only the most poetic way, mother and sister began smelling smoke within the theater!  Was this an enhanced sensory experience the theater was offering?  Not exactly.  The odor was faint enough not to cause alarm, so the audience continued to watch the movie.  After the film had concluded, they exited the Fox to find — lo and behold — that the Golden State Theater, which stood just across the street and a few yards down 7th Street, was in its final throes.  Cinema Treasures:

Originally opened in January 1890 as the Loring Opera House. Star[s] such as Sarah Bernhardt and W.C. Fields performed on its stage.

Cinema Paradiso - text block 1Later it became a movie theatre and was renamed Golden State Theatre, operated by Fox West Coast Theatres.

It was closed in January 1973, and stood unoccupied until the empty building was gutted by a mysterious fire (possibly arson due to the high cost of renovation?) in October 1990. City officials then approved plans to demolish the remains of the building.

Ever since I heard this story, I’ve considered witnessing the conflagration of two movie palaces in one night — one on film and one in the flesh — to be an amazing coincidence.  Alas, the trespasses of our past.  Once the old movie houses go, they shall not return — so we must treasure those that still stand.

Now on to the movie!

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Cinema Paradiso is a lovely, charming, endearing and timeless classic that captures the exuberance of old classic movie houses and the joyous spirit of a night spent within.

There is a director’s cut of Cinema Paradiso, which adds nearly an hour to the running time.  It was released in 2002, and I don’t think I’ve seen it.  The widely-seen theatrical release is 124 min., and the one I’ve seen.  I mention it because critics are split as to which release is better.  At some point I’ll have to revisit Cinema Paradiso at its full length.

But no matter the version, Cinema Paradiso is completely essential.

Roger Ebert:

Yes, it is tragic that the big screen has been replaced by the little one. But the real shame is that the big screens did not grow even bigger, grow so vast they were finally on the same scale as the movies they were reflecting.

Cinema Paradiso - stillIn his 3 1/2-star review, Ebert knocks this movie down a peg for being too predictable.  My memory of the latter half of the film is not clear enough to agree or disagree with Ebert, but any such transgression is easily forgiven.  Now I’m not sure what happened — I can’t email Ebert to find out — but he awarded the new, longer version 4 stars while stating that it was inferior to the original, at 3 1/2 stars.  Go figure.

Stephen Holden of the Times, in his review of the director’s cut:

“Cinema Paradiso” has had its detractors. Yes, its sentimentality is shameless, but its child’s-eye view of the world — a view bursting with wonder, curiosity and longing — feels emotionally authentic.

Holden disagrees with Ebert about which version of the film is better:

The director’s cut, which will open in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, is more romantic, more emotional and ultimately more satisfying than the teary-eyed original. By adding 48 minutes to that two-hour release, and bringing back a character that had been deleted from it, the director’s cut sabotages the earlier version’s message, a variation of the old admonition that you can’t go home again.

You can’t go wrong with either version; the original is waiting for you on Netflix.

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Cinema Paradiso - text block 2Besides all its other charms, Cinema Paradiso features a beautiful and perfectly fitting Ennio Morricone score.  And the language!  The movie could only be Italian — any other nationality would not work nearly as well.  The language, setting and score sing in harmony.

Cinema Paradiso is a wonderful film, which upon its release became instantly embedded into the canon of film.  A must for all cinephiles, that it’s in Italian only makes it better.

Cinematic Greats: Sling Blade

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SPEAKING OF BILLY BOB THORNTON… I previously highlighted him in the terrific film A Simple Plan, but his greatest accomplishment is Sling Blade (1996).  He wrote, directed, and starred in this indie: what a way to claim your arrival at the doorsteps of Hollywood.  Sling Blade is a classic, timeless tale that I connect to great literary works such as Of Mice and Men and The Old Man and the Sea.  Kevin Thomas of the LA Times wrote at the time:

Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade” is a mesmerizing parable of good and evil and a splendid example of Southern storytelling at its most poetic and imaginative.

Sling Blade is a must-watch film.  Try to find a good quality recording.  I find it odd and disappointing that such highly acclaimed films from such a relatively short time ago as the 1990’s are not readily available in HD.Sling Blade - still large

Cinematic Greats: Chariots of Fire

Chariots of Fire poster - largeINVESTIGATING THE OLYMPIC theme music, I found a Smithsonian article which explains the muddled mess quite nicely.  In a nutshell, the primary theme Americans identify with the Olympics is Leo Arnaud’s “Bugler’s Dream”, not composed by John Williams, who however added to “Bugler’s Dream” with his own original composition for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Olympics - Theme Music Article SmithsonianOutside of the U.S., the music most associated with the Olympics is the Chariots of Fire theme music by Vangelis.  That’s too bad for foreigners, because the American take is grand, spirited music that I have for most of my life strongly associated with the Olympic games — and it is so completely apt.  The Chariots of Fire music is also beautiful and spirited, and I associate it too with the Olympics — but only in a secondary manner by way of the movie.  I am happy as an American to be able to embrace both pieces of music.

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Looking into the Olympic music caused me to reflect on Chariots of Fire, a superbly great movie.  Roger Ebert gave his highest rating:

This is strange. I have no interest in running and am not a partisan in the British class system. Then why should I have been so deeply moved by “Chariots of Fire,” a British film that has running and class as its subjects? I’ve toyed with that question since I first saw this remarkable film in May 1981 at the Cannes Film Festival, and I believe the answer is rather simple: Like many great films, “Chariots of Fire” takes its nominal subjects as occasions for much larger statements about human nature.

Indeed.  Among all the remarkable aspects of this movie is its score, the brilliant collection by Vangelis.  Beyond the well-known main theme, the entire soundtrack is thoroughly modern, yet works magically as a defining theme perfectly in harmony with the period story.  I realize Chariots of Fire is a well-known and highly regarded film, having won four Oscars including Best Picture.  But that does not preclude a mention here: it is highly recommended, essential viewing.

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Trailer – IMDb

Cinematic Greats: Koyaanisqatsi

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Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio (1982) was important in my early development as a film enthusiast — along with 2001 and The Right Stuff, it captured my imagination for how great movies could be.  I tried in vain to find the Leonard Maltin review, but this from Mike Garrett will do:

If there is one film which absolutely deserves to be seen on the big screen with stereo surround sound, it is Godfrey Reggio’s remarkable Koyaanisqatsi. This is a totally unconventional film without plot, actors or dialogue, which mesmerises us with time-lapse and slow-motion photography of civilization and nature, presenting our familiar world from an otherworldly perspective. The powerful soundtrack by Philip Glass is as moving as the imagery, and quite integral to the spellbinding effect. Cinematography is by Ron Fricke, who did Baraka in the same style.

Koyaanisqatsi - still Vegas large“Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi Indian word for “life out of balance”, and much of the film deals with not just the emergent beauty, but also the discordance of life in the modern world. This is a little overplayed, with not too subtle H-bomb detonations contrasting the many beautiful shots, nevertheless it is a moving and historically important film that you shouldn’t miss if you have an interest in cinema. Or in being entertained, even.

Originally released in 1983, the Nova is showing a new 35mm print, which really is the only way to experience it. I’ll give Leonard Maltin the last word on this: “So rich in beauty and detail that with each viewing it becomes a new and different film. Should be seen in a theatre for maximum impact.” What more could you want from a film?

Growing up with this movie, I never viewed it as “an invitation to knee-jerk environmentalism of the most sentimental kind,” as Roger Ebert claimed.  I was simply mesmerized by the picture — and that from watching on an old 19 inch Sony Trinitron, either on VHS tape or from broadcasts of it (I believe PBS showed it a couple times).  So forget about all the politics when watching it, just sit back for an audiovisual treat.  It is not available for streaming, but one may purchase the entire Qatsi trilogy on Blu-Ray.  You might be also able to find a DVD at the local library or video shop, and it occasionally is shown at various events.  Koyaanisqatsi is essential viewing and worth hunting down.

The Elusive Glengarry Glen Ross

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I HAD FORGOTTEN that Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) was written by David Mamet, the prolific playwright who also writes and directs films.  I had been wanting to see it for years, but never got beyond a moment or two on the tele.  It occupies an interesting niche in the world of cinema: it must be considered as among the essentials, yet not one of the truly great films of all time.  Essential because of its Glengarry Glen Ross - Spacey & Lemmonpowerhouse presentation of ensemble actors: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey and Jonathan Pryce are all at the top of their form.  You will not see a film which features a better acting crew.

And Glengarry Glen Ross is a good movie, probably the ultimate film about salesmen.  At 100 compact minutes, it is a tight little powderkeg of a film, neatly executed and wrapped up.  But therein may be seen the film’s big flaw: the plot is a little too one-note, a little too concise, and the result is a film which, having originated as a play, can’t help get past feeling a little stagey.  Adding to this sense is that the story never fully develops in the explosive way that one can imagine — that package remains wrapped up at the end, instead of strewn about the streets.

But the film is hardly wrecked; it is highly absorbing and, again, essential viewing.  I’ve been wanting to write about Mamet films for some time — a number of movies he wrote are unified by a very distinctive, play-like dialogue.  Unlike a number of stage productions which are converted to film, the cadence and intrigue of his writing translates well to film.  If you’ve not seen a Mamet picture, start with Edmond (2005, William H. Macy) instead of this one — which brings me back to the point I made earlier: though Edmond is a better film than Glengarry Glen Ross, one cannot hail it as ‘essential’.  7/10

Cinematic Greats: Fargo

Roger Ebert:

Films like “Fargo” are why I love the movies.

You betcha!  Me too.  Fargo is a masterpiece of the highest order.  I was thinking about Pulp Fiction and Fargo, and connected it to an idea that I’ve had for a long time: there is no single greatest film of all time.  2001 is not a greater film than A Clockwork Orange, or Pulp Fiction, or Fargo.  These films have an equality of greatness which promises a viewing experience beyond that of lesser cinema.

Fargo still - Buscemi - largeFargo is the reason movies exist.  I saw a blog post a ways back about the top 10 Coen brothers’ films, which went out of its way to diss Fargo as overrated and not worthy of the Coen ‘top 10’ list.  Sometimes I don’t know what people are thinking.  It is easily the best Coen brothers film (though I have not seen them all), readily surpassing the great No Country for Old Men, as well as almost every other picture ever made.

I unfortunately skipped Fargo during its theatrical release because the ‘homespun’ poster turned me off.  If you haven’t yet, see this one as soon as possible, uncut and in HD — it’s a perfect winter’s tale.  I’d like to include a trailer or clip, but could not find one that does it justice.

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Pulp Fiction Added to National Film Registry

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Pulp Fiction is one of the greatest pictures of all time, a masterpiece, and on a personal note there is no other film that I treasure more dearly.  It has been added to the National Film Registry for 2013.  I thought at first that this is maybe 10 years late, but I reckon more time allows one to realize it was not just a flash in the pan or a trendy choice.  Pulp Fiction is a classic which will endure for all time.

Also among those added: the essential documentary Roger & Me, the delightful Mary Poppins, The Magnificent Seven, and one of my favorite films from high school days, The Right Stuff.