that is the question

One of my all-time favorite comedies will be on Turner Classic Movies: TCM? at 7 p.m. Central tonight. I have blogged about “To Be or Not To Be” before, but just in case you’ve never seen it, please watch it or DVR it.

The movie, directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch, stars Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as the leads in a troupe of Polish actors during World War II. Carole has a little bit of a backstage dalliance with a Polish pilot – played by an impossibly-young Robert Stack – that ends up getting her, and thus the acting company, mixed up in some spy chicanery and requires Benny to impersonate a traitorous Polish professor.

The movie was a huge flop on its original release – it was at a time in the war when people weren’t in the mood to laugh at the Nazis, and it was released just after Lombard’s death in an airplane crash. But in the years since, it’s been recognized as a classic. It was remade in the 1980s by Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, and that’s not bad either, but the original is still the best. Be sure and see or record it tonight if you haven’t yet seen it.

‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore’

“Network” is on TCM right now.

I did not see, and would not have been old enough to appreciate, “Network” when it was still in the theaters. But I saw it on TV when it was still shocking. My younger friends have no way of appreciating this movie; if they watch it, it will come off completely different in their eyes.

When “Network” came out in 1976, there were three broadcast TV networks. Cable TV was a very minor business which primarily provided distant broadcast signals to rural areas too far away to receive them, as well as a few added bonuses like Ted Turner’s superstation (then still known as WTCG, later WTBS, now just TBS). Big cities didn’t even have cable TV.

The three broadcast networks were, make no doubt about it, profit-making businesses. But they at least wanted to maintain the illusion of public service, and the Federal Communications Commission required local TV stations to do that as well. The networks’ news operations weren’t necessarily loss leaders, but they were about prestige and respectability as well as profits.

So Paddy Chayefsky’s script in 1976 about a network dropping all pretense of public service, putting a ranting and raving lunatic on the air and surrounding him with astrologers and found-footage terrorists seemed like outlandish black comedy when it came out, and even a few years later when I first saw it. Paddy Chayefsky, a leading light of the “golden age” of live television in the 1950s, was accused of biting the hand that had fed him with this ridiculously over-the-top satire.

Now, of course, we have Kardashians and raving pundits (at both ends of the political spectrum). Howard Beale seems pretty tame compared to the reality of television, and popular culture, in 2014.

I am Groot

Well, I went to see “Guardians of the Galaxy” today. I’d been mildly curious about this movie since seeing the first publicity for it many months ago, but sadly, “mildly curious” doesn’t get me to the theater that often. (The last movie I saw in the theater was “The Monuments Men,” and you probably have to go back a year or two before that.)

But several friends, and several reviewers, were so effusive about it last weekend, stressing how much fun it was, that I decided to go see it. I had the time and the money the same weekend, and I even walked to the theater, getting in my daily exercise. I was warned by the box office that they were having air conditioning problems upstairs, but I took the chance anyway. It wasn’t that bad, and they had ceiling fans running. Once the movie got started, I never had a chance to think about the temperature.

“Fun” is exactly the right word for this movie – the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in ages. Equal parts wise-cracking humor, breakneck action and eye-popping production design, this is the very definition of a popcorn movie. And it has a heart, to boot.

Except for the pre-credits prologue, which documents how young Peter Quill was abducted by aliens after running away from his mother’s deathbed in (IIRC) 1987, the movie is set far, far away from Earth.

I’m echoing several reviewers when I say this has the fun and humor of the initial Star Wars movies, without the ponderous self-seriousness of the prequels.  It also has the fast pace of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” There are times when it’s hard to follow certain nuances of the story, but it hardly seems to matter.

The two CGI characters – Rocket the Raccoon and Groot, a tree-like creature with a one-phrase vocabulary – work surprisingly well and you find yourself surprisingly invested in their fate. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista are all terrific, as are all of the various supporting players. (Wish they’d given John C. Reilly more to do.)

One thing many reviewers have mentioned, and justifiably so, is the movie’s soundtrack – a soundtrack so wonderful, and so of my generation, that I immediately had to come home and buy it from Amazon. Young Peter Quill’s only possession when he’s abducted – his only link to home, and his mother – is a Sony Walkman with a mixtape his mother made for him. That becomes a plot point in the movie, and it includes some of my favorite songs. One reviewer referred to them as “80s songs,” I guess because the opening scene is supposed to be set in the mid 80s, but they’re mostly 70s songs – songs the mother would no doubt have listened to in the 1970s when she was an adolescent, songs she would have treasured and wanted to pass along.

Here’s the list from the soundtrack album, which should give you an idea:

1. Hooked on a Feeling, Blue Swede

2. Go All the Way, The Raspberries

3. Spirit in the Sky, Norman Greenbaum

4. Moonage Daydream, David Bowie

5. Fooled Around And Fell In Love, Elvin Bishop

6. I’m Not in Love, 10cc

7. I Want You Back, Jackson 5

8. Come and Get Your Love, Redbone

9. Cherry Bomb, The Runaways

10. Escape (The Piña Colada Song), Rupert Holmes

11. O-O-H Child, The Five Stairsteps

12. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Tammi Terrell

“Hooked on a Feeling” and “Fooled Around And Fell in Love” are among my all-time favorites, and I have great memories of most of the others as well. Yes, they’re sometimes used in a tongue-in-cheek manner within the movie, but they’re still great songs – and the movie knows it. No wonder Peter Quill is so protective of that Walkman!

This is a Marvel Studios movie, so be sure not to leave the theater just because the end credits are rolling. Stay until after the credits and you’ll be rewarded. (Remember that Marvel and Lucasfilm are now both owned by Disney, and think back to 1986. That’s all I’m saying.)

cinematic ramblings

The other day, when posting (as I often do) a Facebook update about some movie coming up on Turner Classic Movies. I made a passive-aggressive comment about not knowing if anyone paid attention to my classic movie recommendations. What I meant was that I can’t recall anyone ever posting “Hey, John, I watched ‘Miracle of Morgan’s Creek’ on your recommendation, and I never laughed so hard in my life.”

Several people were kind enough to comment on my post, saying that they enjoyed my movie recommendations.

I enjoy introducing people to great movies they’ve never seen before. The high point of my adult life was the 2 1/2 years at Famous Televangelist University when I was in charge of the campus movies, and got to introduce my fellow students – some of whom had grown up in Christian-media-only bubbles – to things like “Casablanca.”

Anyway, later that night, in the middle of the night, I woke up and got to thinking. I’ve been wanting to do some sort of podcast but didn’t think I had a marketable idea. (I also don’t have the infrastructure to do a really professional-sounding, properly-distributed podcast right now.) Maybe I could turn my blithering about movies into some sort of podcast – I would scan the TV listings, in advance, and then do a little five-minute audio, once a week, calling people’s attention to some sort of classic movie, either on TCM or some other station or streaming service.

For a five-minute podcast, I could start by just uploading it to Soundcloud for a few months. If it worked out, and if anyone listened to it, I could eventually figure out some way to turn it into a real, properly-produced, properly-hosted podcast.

I can’t start it right now – I’m going to be pretty busy for the next month or two, between the horse show and the play I’m in – but I’m going to keep giving it some thought.

Lives up to the name ‘essential’

Saturday night, at 8 p.m. Eastern / 7 p.m. Central, TCM will air “Metropolis” as this week’s episode of “The Essentials,” hosted by Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore. TCM shows the latest restoration of the movie, released in 2010, and made possible by footage found in 2008 in Argentina. My brother and sister-in-law gave me this as a Christmas gift a few years ago, and it’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

If you have never seen “Metropolis,” or if you’ve only seen the butchered print that existed before 2010, you really need to watch this, or set your VCR.

Even if you don’t like silent movies – and I have to admit, I rarely have the attention span to sit and watch a silent feature film here at home – this is the one to see. It laid the groundwork for so many other things, from “Star Trek” to “Blade Runner.”

The German expressionist classic, released in 1927, just a year or two before talkies became the norm, tells the story of a future civilization deeply divided between the haves and the have-nots. The ruling class lives in a beautiful city of art-deco skyscrapers and flying cars. (Many, many movie and TV art directors, for things like the Tim Burton-era “Batman” movies, have cited “Metropolis” as an influence on their futuristic urban landscapes.) The working class works underground.

Freder Fredersen is the privileged son of Joh Fredersen, the mayor of this futuristic city. Maria is one of the workers, and has become the leader of a non-violent resistance movement, hoping for a “mediator” who can bring together the city’s two classes. When she breaks into the city’s pleasure gardens, Freder sees her and is smitten. He ventures into the city’s subterranean world looking for her and is shocked at what  he finds there.

Joh Fredersen, disturbed by his son’s newfound interest in the workers and worried because some workers have been found in possession of suspicious maps, turns to his old friend and bitter enemy, a mad scientist named Rotwang, who has invented a lifelike android that can be used to disrupt the workers’ resistance movement. But Rotwang has his own priorities ….

Seriously, if you’ve enjoyed any modern science fiction movies or TV shows, you need to see this movie, which laid the groundwork for so many of them. These weren’t cliches in 1927 ….

for those of you with kids

I was neglectful, earlier in the summer, in giving my usual shout-out to “Essentials Jr.,” Turner Classic Movies’ wonderful – but horribly-named – summer showcase of family-friendly films, hosted again this year by Bill Hader, formerly of SNL.

Anyway, tonight, instead of showing one movie, they’re going to show short subjects from the legends of silent comedy – Chaplin, Keaton, Roscoe Arbuckle, and so on. Depending on your kids’ ages and how open they are to new things, this might be a fun evening ….

lisa

I just watched a sensational movie I’d never seen or even heard of before: “Lisa,” with Dolores Hart and Stephen Boyd. Dolores Hart – who is now a Benedictine nun – is co-hosting an evening of movies on Turner Classic Movies, and this apparently seldom-seen gem was one she requested they show.

Dolores Hart, before entering the convent, was best known for appearing in a couple of movies with Elvis (“Loving You” and “King Creole”) as well as “Where The Boys Are.” While they aren’t showing either of the Elvis movies tonight, Robert Osborne had to ask her about Elvis, and she remarked on what a gentleman he was to her, calling her “Miss Dolores” – the same thing she would later be called as a postulant!

Stephen Boyd is best known, to me, anyhow, as the bad guy in “Ben-Hur,” but he’s the good guy in “Lisa.”  He plays a Dutch policeman in 1946, guilt-ridden because he could not save his wife from the Nazis, who encounters an emotionally-scarred survivor of the concentration camps and Nazi expermentation. Lisa (Hart) wants to travel to Palestine (the movie is set two years before the state of Israel was created) and become a nurse. Seeking redemption, Boyd vows that he will help her get there. Her experiences have left her with trust issues, and she’s not sure how to take his offer.

A highlight of the film early on is an appearance by one of my favorites, Leo McKern (of “Rumpole of the Bailey” and “The Prisoner”) as a curmudgeonly barge captain who helps the pair get out of Amsterdam.

A terrific movie, with great performances by both of the stars.

those frenchies seek him everywhere

I came home for lunch just now and noticed that “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (1934), with Leslie Howard, was just about to come on TCM. I can’t sit here and watch it, of course, but I started the DVR right away.

A little history: Baroness Orczy’s novel “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” about a heroic freedom fighter masquerading as an ineffectual fop, was one of the inspirations for Johnston McCulley to create Zorro – and cartoonist Bob Kane had both the Pimpernel and Zorro in mind when he created the mysterious caped crimefighter who hides behind the public face of wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne.

And, of course, you can’t mention the Pimpernel without quoting the poem – the silly, sing-song poem spouted frequently by the Pimpernel’s swishy alter-ego Sir Percy Blakeney:

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? — Is he in hell?
That damned elusive Pimpernel!

If you mainly know Leslie Howard as wishy-washy Ashley Wilkes from “Gone With The Wind,” you need to see him in this, where he’s equally adept as both the hero and the buffoon.

jiro dreams of sushi

I re-activated my Netflix subscription at the first of the year, but in the past few days – after seeing a $15 per month jump in my DirecTV bill – I’ve been thinking of cancelling it again. But this morning I watched something absolutely sensational on Netflix: the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Here’s a trailer:

Jiro Ono, who was 85 when the documentary was made in 2011, operates perhaps the world’s finest sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, located in Tokyo. It’s small – only 10 seats – and doesn’t even have its own restrooms. The style of service means a meal only takes about 15 minutes, and it costs 30,000 yen (about $300). Even so, you have to make reservations far in advance. It has three stars from Michelin, meaning it’s so good that Michelin would recommend you travel to that country just to eat at that restaurant.

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” beautifully shot, edited and scored, tells the story of Jiro Ono and his two sons. It’s about food, but it’s also about Japanese culture, family dynamics, the pursuit of excellence, and even about the environment and sustainability. Jiro never really knew his own father, who left when he was about 6 or 7. But he has tried to communicate his passion and sense of purpose to both of his sons, who follow in his footsteps – the younger already operates a cheaper branch of the family restaurant, while the older – in his 50s – will eventually take over the original location, knowing he’ll have to work twice as hard if he ever wants to step out of his father’s shadow. (Pay close attention, near the end of the movie, for a fact about the Michelin rating that sheds new light on the elder son’s status.)

There’s no narration, but all of the participants speak Japanese, so  you have to be OK with subtitles.

Dang it, now I’m hungry for sushi.

monuments men

Last summer, my brother and sister-in-law here in Tennessee gave me a Regal Cinemas gift card for my birthday so that I could go see “Star Trek Into Darkness.” May was a crazy month, between symphony stuff and Relay For Life stuff, and I never got around to it. Being unattached, I don’t get out to the movies that often. When I had the time there wasn’t anything in the theater I wanted to see, and when there was something I wanted to see I could never find the time.

This month, however, I’ve been wanting to see “The Monuments Men.” I love the premise, I love the cast, and I’m a big admirer of “Good Night, And Good Luck,” an earlier fact-based movie directed and co-written by George Clooney. So today, I got away from work a little early (I have some stuff to cover this weekend) and drove to Tullahoma for the 3:50 p.m. screening.

I haven’t read any actual reviews of the movie yet, but I saw something last night that indicated some critics don’t like it. If that’s the case, I have to disagree with those critics. I thoroughly enjoyed “The Monuments Men.” I would go see it again if I had the chance.

While it’s based on real situations, and some of its characters are (renamed) versions of real people, I don’t know how accurate it is as blow-by-blow history. But as entertainment, for me anyway, it was a grand slam home run.

I suspect most of you know the basic premise, and the cast in various permutations have been blanketing various talk shows for the past couple of weeks, but in case you don’t know, the movie is set during World War II, primarily after the Normandy invasion, when all sides could see the writing on the wall but there was still a perilous journey to get there. The Nazis had been accumulating billions of dollars worth of priceless artworks from the countries they’d invaded and from the Jews in their own country. This artwork was intended to eventually be displayed in a massive “Fuhrer Museum” in Hitler’s home town.

With the end of the war looming, there are several dangers – that the Nazis might destroy the artifacts out of spite, that the Allies might bomb them accidentally, or that the Soviets might re-steal them and keep them for themselves, with the supposed moral justification of their heavy casualties.

Frank Stokes (Clooney) convinces FDR of the necessity to preserve these priceless cultural artifacts, even if it involves risk. The authorities aren’t convinced enough to commit much in the way of resources, but they allow Clooney to put together a team of experts, played by Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin (“The Artist,” which I saw for the first time on Netflix just a few weeks ago), Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”). The men are a bit too old to be regular soldiers but gamely go through basic training and are dispatched to Europe. There, with the help of a young German-speaking soldier (played by Dimitri Leonidas, who’s gotten little mention but who’s terrific) and a cynical Frenchwoman (Cate Blanchett), they attempt to track down and preserve as much of the artwork as they can, returning it to its original owners if possible.

Some in the military to whom Clooney and his team turn for help see this as a ridiculous distraction and an insult to the brave young soldiers risking their lives around the world. But Clooney and his team passionately believe that the cultural identity of the conquered nations is one of the very things the Nazis had been trying to destroy – and therefore one of the very things that was most worth fighting for. They see themselves not simply as preserving dusty old works of art but as preserving part of what it means to be a human being.

I knew going in that this was part of the message of the movie and was afraid it would be driven home with a sledgehammer. Remember Clooney’s famously-arrogant Oscar speech, in which he seemed, on behalf of the entertainment industry, to take credit for every social advance of the past century? Even Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park,” who owed Clooney their careers, made fun of that speech as a dangerous “cloud of smug” which figured into the cataclysmic plot of one “South Park” episode.

But, no, while this movie has a message (and a good one), it works first and foremost as entertainment. The bravado of Clooney’s team and the relationships between various team members made me think of classic movie director Howard Hawks, who would probably have enjoyed this movie greatly. I particularly loved the Mutt-and-Jeff relationship between Bill Murray’s and Bob Balaban’s characters. I would watch a movie just about the two of them.

In fact, if the movie has a flaw, it’s that the cast is so big, with so many great actors, that you wish you could get to know some of the characters a little bit better, especially the two who leave the action before we get to the end.

I highly recommend this movie. I had a great time.