Been & Going

[Why Watch This?] Holiday Edition Part II: Trading Places

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It’s Christmas time! Time to revisit our Why Watch This list of all time great holiday movies! Never seen these- this is your chance to catch up on some classics.

Watching Trading Places in 2013 makes 1983 seemindex like it was 150 years ago instead of only 30. And it’s not that I believe that some of the racial attitudes and stereotypes aren’t still hidden away in the hearts and minds of those of us living in 2013, it’s more about how upfront they are about it. Nowadays, we are much more subversive when we are racist. We are all so self-aware about how we are perceived by everyone that it is hard to imagine a movie like Trading Places happening now. But what makes Trading Places a terrific movie, and why I can watch it every single time it is on, is not the plot, or the lessons that can be learned by the characters, it’s the little moments, the glances or lines, that expose the world and endear the characters. And make you laugh, oh boy do they make you laugh.

The plot is simple: Brothers Randolph and Mortimer Duke (played by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy) rule the commodities market. Their firm in Philadelphia has been around for decades and is the epitome of white upper class honkeyism. Dan Ackroyd plays Louis Winthorpe. Louis manages he Duke firm, lives in a Duke owned brownstone, and is engaged to the Duke’s debutante niece Penelope. TP EmRandolph likes to read Scientific American when they are sitting in their leather easy chairs within the dark wood paneled walls of their club, and he has a theory about the whole “nature vs. nurture” debate. After their club is inadvertently interrupted by Billy Ray Valentine, played by Eddie Murphy, being chased by the police, the brothers concoct a bet. Randolph believes that if you take anyone off of the street (aka Billy Ray) and give them the life and opportunity as someone like Louis, then he will rise to the occasion and thrive. Conversely, if you take away the life and opportunity from someone like Louis then he will descend into crime and end up on the streets.

The brothers put their experiment in motion and give Billy Ray Louis’ life while at the same time discrediting Louis and TP DAkicking him to the street. Randolph ends up being right, Billy Ray understands the commodities market almost instantly (“You’re just a coupla bookies!” He exclaims and Randolph nods knowingly). Louis, after enlisting the help of prostitute Ophelia, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, descends quickly and ultimately ends up threatening everyone at the Duke firm’s Christmas party with a gun while drunk (and dressed as Santa! See, drunken Santas are the key to all good Holiday movies!). Randolph wins the bet, and while collecting his winnings ($1! “The usual amount”), he and Mortimer sum up their scheme in the bathroom while being overheard by Billy Ray.

Billy Ray is horrified to hear what has happened, as we all are to hear Mortimer TP santaexclaim, “Do you think I would have a (insert N word here) run our firm?” He seeks out Louis, tells him what has happened and the two plot a revenge scheme that involves trains, Jim Belushi in a gorilla suit, Dan Ackroyd in blackface, and Jamie Lee Curtis in Lederhosen. Ok, maybe a little bit off the rails, but you’re along for the ride, so just go.

TP rev plotSo, anyway, let’s get back to what makes this movie great. “He was wearing my Harvard tie, like oh sure, he went to Harvard,” Louis says to Ophelia after having seen Billy Ray in Louis’ limousine, um, wearing his Harvard tie. Once, when I was much younger, I drove a co-worker crazy by repeating that line over and over again for like 30 minutes. The key is to use a “Harvard” accent, and draw out the rs. The only explanation I have was that I was trying to make Eric, who worked with me at the time, laugh, and we liked to torture this poor girl who worked with us, so it made sense.

But it’s the little lines, the little moments like that. Like when Randolph is explaining the commodities market to Billy Ray and is slowly and deliberately explaining what a pork belly is, “Like bacon, that you might put in a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.” Billy Ray lifts his head and looks directly into the camera in this moment. He doesn’t smile or wink but you instantly connect with him, you are TP Eddie look at caminstantly drawn into the joke. Really? He’s saying to us, really? And we get it, we are in on it. Ultimately I would argue that is where it transcends all the racial stereotypes throughout, you connect with the humanity of the characters and by doing so realize how ridiculous the stereotypes are. Billy Ray throws a big party for all of his “friends” and they trash the place. He ends up throwing them out and has a nice little moment with the butler, Coleman where he thanks him for cleaning up. You can tell by the look on Coleman’s face that no one has ever thanked him before.

It’s the moments like those, plus the drunken Santa that make this one of my favorites. In fact, I use the following formula: Funny Sayings You Can Drive People Crazy With + Drunken Santas * Any Use of the Word “Pookums” – Jim Belushi in a gorilla suit= 8.5 on the happy go fun Holiday Movie scale of Why Watch This.

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[Why Watch This?] Holiday Edition Part I: The Ref

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It’s Christmas time! Time to revisit our Why Watch This list of all time great holiday movies! Never seen these- this is your chance to catch up on some classics.

The problem with retro-movie reviews is that occasionally you are faced with some tough questions. For example, is Denis Leary still funny? Or, for that matter, was he ever funny? To answer that question, I offer up The Ref, a nice little holiday movie directed by Ted Demme in 1994.

ref ks and jdMr. Leary plays Gus, a burglar having a bad night. An alarm sounds while he is trying to break into a safe in a wealthy man’s home in a small wealthy town in Connecticut and he is sprayed in the face with cat piss. This places him on the run in a claustrophobic small town with a bungling police force while trying to hook back up with his equally bungling wheel man, Murray. He stumbles across troubled couple Caroline and Lloyd Chasseur played by Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey and ends up taking them hostage and forcing them to take him back to their house.

What unfolds is dysfunctional family comedy at its best. Caroline and Lloyd are on the verge of divorce, their son is blackmailing tref gjhe dean of the military boarding school they sent him to. Lloyd’s domineering mother (played by the “isn’t she wonderful” in everything Glynis Johns), brother, equally overbearing sister-in-law (played by the “isn’t she wonderful” in everything Christine Baranski) and their two kids are on their way to dinner. This fact has Gus posing as a marriage counselor and ultimately “The Ref” of the ensuing arguments and family craziness.

Many things are revealed during the ensuing dinner and holiday festivities. Judy Davis, who used to be in Woody Allen movies in the ‘90s, is fantastic as Caroline, what she does to the word “fascinating” three quarters of the way through the movie is worth the ref candlesprice of rental/Netflix (DVD only, not streaming) alone. What’s great about the characters is that everyone is at fault a little and everyone is also the victim a little. All it took was this foul mouth house burglar to tell them like it is, which in some ways forces them to finally admit the truth, stop fighting, and maybe even fix some stuff. It does all of this with some great character comedy, and lets Denis Leary be Denis Leary without going too nuts.

The Ref is on my holiday movie viewing list every year. It has everything you need, a fighting family, a drunken Santa, snow, small picturesque town, duct tape, weird Scandinavian candle head wreathes, delinquent children, and a happy ending.

[Why Watch This- Retro Movie Reviews] The Third Man

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The Third Man is the story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a pulp western novel writer who travels to Vienna after the war to work for his childhood friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). When he arrives in Vienna he discovers that Harry was recently killed in a hit and run in front of his apartment. Holly carries his suitcase out to the cemetery just in time to toss a cup of dirt on Harry’s WWT-TTM-Cottencoffin. He catches the attention of Major Calloway, a British Major who is in Vienna helping out after the war.

Calloway drives Holly back to a hotel where he puts him up for the night, but only one night. Calloway wants Holly to leave. But now Holly’s interest is peaked, he goes to visit Harry’s girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Valli), an actress with a shady past. Holly and Anna go to Harry’s apartment where Holly learns from the porter that there was a third man present when Harry was killed. A third man!

Much to Calloway’s consternation, Holly stays on and continues to investigate Harry’s death. Holly gets a gig to speak about his writing to pay for the hotel. Finally Calloway decides to tell Holly what Harry has been up to in Vienna, and it’s not pretty. More suspicious characters are introduced and ultimately we learn that Harry faked his death to escape the charges Calloway is preparing against him. One of my most favorite scenes is when Holly confronts Harry at a Ferris wheel somewhere WWT-TTM-Ferrisamongst the rubble of bombed out Vienna. I won’t spoil the best line, and supposedly Orson Welles added it himself, and it is one of the best lines uttered in classic cinema.

Ultimately Calloway convinces Holly of Harry’s misdoings and uses him as bait to capture Harry. Holly agrees to help them if Calloway will help Anna get out of Vienna before the Soviets claim her as a former citizen of Czechoslovakia. However, Anna doesn’t want to be helped, not at the expense of Harry and she warns him of the trap. Harry runs off and a wonderfully filmed chase scene ensues through the wreckage of Vienna. They eventually end up in the sewers, European cities have the most awesome looking sewer systems, where things don’t end so well for our friend Mr. Lime.

The film ends back at the cemetery where they are burying Harry’s actual body this time. The same people are present but the feeling is a little different. The last shot is my favorite, one of my favorite ending shots in all of film-land. It’s a long one of Anna WWT-TTM-Endwalking down a road away from the cemetery. Holly is waiting for her, leaning against a wagon, hat tilted back. Fall leaves are falling…I won’t ruin it for you. But it’s awesome. And, apparently the ending was in dispute between screenwriter Graham Greene and director Carol Reed. Ultimately Reed won the argument and Greene has since admitted he was wrong.

Nobody writes the character of the clueless American mucking things up oversees like Graham Greene. Holly blusters his way through a Vienna in ruins, in the process of being divided and split amongst the countries that won the war. The people are haggard, they don’t trust American strangers, and they stick together. Anna doesn’t care what Harry did, she loves him anyway and she is more loyal to him then to Holly or the British government, or anything else.

One of my favorite “go see an old movie in a real life movie theater” experience was when I had the opportunity to see The Third Man at the Billy Wilder Theater here in Westwood. To top it off, David Birney was there. Granted I only really know David BirneyWWT-TTM-Birney from his appearances on Murder, She Wrote and Love Boat, but still, it’s always fun to see a famous person. Yet, The Third Man is a great film to see on the big screen if you can. The black and white, the almost expressionist style of the direction, the “Dutch angles,” the contrast between the stone and marble opulence of old Vienna and the dirt and grime and rubble of post-war Vienna is a veritable feast for the eyes.

And now, in closing, I will discuss the soundtrack. It’s zither music and oh boy is there a lot of it. The zither music is a character in itself. And what, you may ask, is a zither? I’m not sure, it seems to be some kind of guitar-like stringed instrument. The soundtrack was composed by Anton Karas who was a local musician in Vienna. Reed chose to use this folk music to represent Vienna instead of going in the traditional Vienna waltz direction. It adds to the atmosphere to be sure, but it does take a bit of getting used to, I’m not going to lie. But don’t let it scare you off. The Third Man is considered one of the greatest films ever made for a reason, go see for yourself! And if you want to get a taste of all that zithery goodness- here are the opening credits.

[Why Watch This- Retro Movie Reviews] Halloween I&II

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sitting upWhy won’t she just leave the house? I mean come on, a crazy masked killer with a knife just attacked her, she stabs him with a wire hanger, and she then just sits there crying. GET UP!! OH MY GOD HE’S STILL ALIVE!! HE’S SITTING UP! WHY WON’T SHE JUST LEAVE THE HOUSE??!!! Thank you, John Carpenter, for making Halloween in 1978 and creating the genre of film where unstoppable men stab pretty teenage girls with really big knives. And thank you, Jamie Lee Curtis, for being the original scream queen who makes ALL the wrong decisions yet somehow survives being stalked and almost stabbed by an unstoppable man. (Well, as Scream taught us years later, she survives ‘cause she’s a virgin. But shhh, don’t tell anyone, we aren’t supposed to know that yet.)halloween-1978-young-michael-myers1

And then they did it again for Halloween II, only this time Jamie is wearing the most wonderful wig because even though real world time has advanced 3 years and a haircut, movie time picks up right where the first one left off.

In the multi-layer cinema universe that is the Halloween movie franchise, you really only need to concern yourself with I and II. Sorry Rob Zombie, but honestly why screw with perfection? Halloween  starts in Haddonfield, Illinois, it’s Halloween night fifteen years ago, the song “Mr. Sandman” is playing and a young boy dressed in a cute clown costume stabs his naked sister to death because she just had sex with some guy.Halloween_1978_girls

Move forward fifteen years and there is unrest at the mental institution. It seems Michael Meyers, the little boy from above, is all grown up and he just escaped. His doctor, played with gleeful over-the-topness by Donald Pleasance, is quite distraught. Dr. Crazy Eyes had told them to keep Mr. Meyers under tighter security, he had told them not to be fooled by Michael’s catatonic state. He’s evil you see, EEEVVVIIILLLLLLLL. And now he’s loose. God help us all.halloween-donald-pleasance12-610x260

Next we meet Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) a goody two shoes if ever there was one. She is the local babysitter and has the worse friends. I mean really, they are pretty bad, but it’s ok they’re about to die horribly. It’s Halloween night and Laurie is babysitting. What a loser! I mean, her friend Annie is also babysitting but at least Annie’s boyfriend is coming over so they can have sex. That’s why you babysat in the ‘70s. Sex. A lot of sex.

pj solesAnyway, Annie sends the kid she’s watching over to Laurie’s house so their other friend Lynda (played by P.J. Soles, who seemed to show her boobs in a lot of movies in the ‘70s) can come over with her boyfriend. Lots of suspenseful murder ensues. Laurie eventually goes across the street, discovers the bodies of her friends, screams a lot, gets attacked by Michael, runs back to her house, saves the kids, stabs Michael in the eye and then—DOES NOT LEAVE THE HOUSE. WHY? Does she know that her intact hymen will save her?

Luckily Dr. Crazy Eyes shows up in time to shoot Mr. Meyers several times. But wait—oh no! When he goes to look at the body, he’s gone! “It was the boogieman,” Laurie says to Dr. Crazy Eyes. “Yes, I believe he was.”

Kick in Halloween II which begins with the last few minutes of Halloween. Laurie is taken to the hospital, the eeriest emptiest halloween2hospital in all of Illinois. There are no patients in this hospital, only horny nurses and hornier EMTs, and one drunk doctor who doesn’t last long. You see, as soon as Michael hears on a radio from a passing car that Laurie has been taken to the hospital, he goes up there.

And since some years have passed and this is a sequel, there’s a little more nudity, and a lot more, let’s call them “weird” deaths. No more boring “stabbing” with a big ol’ “knife.” Oh no! Michael gets creative with the implements he has at his disposal in a hospital.

Halloween 2 1981 HospitalDr. Crazy Eyes, still looking for Michael in town, learns that Laurie is actually Michael’s sister. She was a baby when he had killed his other sister, and had been put up for adoption. Oh no! He then realizes that he will be going after her, because Michael has this serious problem with his sisters. He rushes up to the hospital in time to save Laurie again, and hopefully, maybe kill Michael and himself in an explosion. (but of course we learn in later sequels that neither perished in the fire, spoiler alert).

Halloween was made for $325,000 and grossed over $70 million worldwide, making it one of the most successful independent movies ever made. Wow. And it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress because of its cultural significance. Yes, slasher films are culturally significant according to the Library of Congress. Carpenter wrote, directed and scored the film. He cast Jamie Lee Curtis, a relatively unknown actress at the time, in what can only be a wink to Psycho, the slasher film that started it all and starred Curtis’ mother, Janet Leigh.

I have to watch Halloween I and II every year on Halloween. I just do. There is something about them. Maybe it’s the music, a simple two note yet incredibly stressful theme that plays through most of the movie. Maybe it’s because they are so familiar to me now. Who knows? But I think, and not just because I’m old, that there is something great in their simplicity. There are no special effects, no gross-out porn or any limbs being severed. It’s just an innocent girl running from unstoppable evil. What’s scarier than that? Nothing.


[Why Watch This- Retro Movie Reviews] How to Marry a Millionaire

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How-to-Marry-a-Millionaire-Marilyn-Monroe-Betty-Grable-Lauren-Bacall    Despite its title and overall premise, How to Marry a Millionaire, is actually a charming movie. But let me get it out of the way first, in honor of my “Gender in Film” college professor. Sure, yes, oh la-di-da, three models living in a swanky New York City apartment with a scheme to land themselves millionaire husbands isn’t exactly a feminist manifesto. But, I mean really, if they did make a movie of a feminist manifesto, would you want to see it? Probably not.

But as Drew Barrymore pointed out in this film’s intro during her “Essentials” segment on Turner Classic Movies, isn’t it nice to have a movie with three strong female characters and they are all getting along? Yes, Drew, yes it is. And even if you disagree with their motives and their goals, this was the 1950s after all, and we have three smart women living in New York City going after what betty and marilynthey want. You’re gonna make it after all! <hat toss>

Lauren Bacall plays Schatze Page (why does she have such a weird name? who knows?). Schatze is the brains behind the operation. She finds the beautiful New York apartment that was recently vacated By Freddie Denmark (David Wayne) who had to move to Europe to escape the IRS. She moves in two of her fellow models, Pola (Marilyn Monroe) (why does she have such a weird name? who knows?) and Loco (Betty Grable) (why does she have such a weird name? who knows?) (Wait, this one they explain, apparently she did something loco once).

Schatze got stiffed by her last husband, a car hop that had lied to her and said he was rich. No more, now it’s caviar only for this girl. The three of them proceed to find themselves rich men to marry, financed by selling the furniture in the apartment they are renting.

Loco meets a rich married man who lures her to his “lodge” in Maine. When she discovers it’s his personal cabin they then realize she has the measles and they’re stuck there for 2 weeks while she recovers. When she gets better her married man contracts measles as well. In the meantime, Loco meets Eben (Rory Calhoon) the local fire ranger and falls in love. He’s not rich! Oh no!

Pola meets a one-eyed man who pretends to be an oil tycoon. Pola is blind as a bat, and refuses to wear her glasses in front of men,Alexander_D'Arcy_and_Marilyn_Monroe_in_How_to_Marry_a_Millionaire_trailer because as Dorothy Parker once said: “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.” Luckily, however, she is saved from the fact that he is a fraud because she accidentally boards a plane to Kansas City instead of the plane to Atlantic City she was supposed to board to meet him. Get it? She’s blind! Anyway, she ends up sitting next to Freddie Denmark (what a coincidence!) who is also blind as a bat. Freddie likes girls who wear glasses. They fall in love. He’s not really rich and may be going to prison soon! Oh no!

Schatze meets an aging millionaire (William Powell! Who doesn’t love THAT guy!) who wants to marry her. The problem is that htmam5she is in love with Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell) who she thinks is another poor car hop. He’s not rich! Oh no! But wait, he really is rich, he just pretends not to be and wears a weird twill jacket all the time and carries around a golf club everywhere he goes. Clearly the two signs of a deadbeat car hop. (What is a car hop by the way? Does anyone really know?)

Valuable lessons are learned all around, the girls all end up with the boys they love, and SURPRISE, Tom is loaded to boot. Nothing but fun, I tell you. To top it off we got some great Cinemascope action. This is the first film shot in Cinemascope and the second released. They use it well, the shots of the apartment with its broad windows and excellent views of Manhattan are stunning. And, there’s even an overture segment at the beginning where they show a WHOLE orchestra play a WHOLE song. Show offs. Technicolor, Cinemascope, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and William imagesPowell? You simply cannot go wrong, it is impossible, so go watch it.

[California Seething] Lenny Holiday Letter 2013- Guest Intro Lauren Sims

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I’ve been thinking about what to write for 2013, for what was to be his last letter. I think when you read it you will see that we knewCal-Seething-092614-lennyco it was going to be his last letter. At the time we wrote it, we were 2 months in to his diagnosis of “big-ass tumor on his liver.” We were freaked out, expecting the worse could and would happen at any moment. Little did we know that Lenny had 9 more months to give us, he wasn’t done with us yet.

2013 was a blur, and reflecting back, it still is, I couldn’t tell you one thing that happened last year. I’ll be in meetings at work and people will refer to things from 2013 and I’ll be like “that was a year ago?” But anyway, this letter was our attempt at a not too maudlin tribute to Lenny and all the crazy stuff we did with him over the years. I think we succeeded. However, I did receive some comments like: “wow, you guys are sad.” So maybe not so much on the “not too maudlin” part.

Lenny was crazy. Completely bonkers off his chain from the moment we brought him home from the West Los Angeles Cal-Seething-092614-hatAnimal Shelter. It was rough at first, for all of us. Eric and I had just moved to LA, Lenny was a young dog with an unknown past that hated anything on wheels and distrusted men. But we all figured it out and became a little family of sorts. As long as we didn’t expect Lenny to act like a “dog” or do anything that we “asked him to do,” we were cool and it worked for us for 13 years.

I can count on my hand the number of people Lenny liked. And this isn’t an insult to those he didn’t, but the Chow in him just didn’t allow him to trust most folks. But if you got on that list, and boy if you were lucky enough for him to sit so you could hug him, it was the best hug you could ever ask for. He would lean against you and look up, snuggle his head in. And sure, maybe he was just trying to encourage me to scratch his chest while he was suffering through this exercise, but regardless, nobody gave a hug like Lenny. Nobody, no thing. And I’ll miss that most of all. So here’s to Lenny—he was a good fucking dog, thank you.

Here’s the 2013 Holiday LetterCal Seething-092614-lennysmile

And here are all the other letters:

2005 letter
2006 letter
2007 letter

2008/09 letters
2011 letter

2012 letter

[Why Watch This- Retro Movie Reviews]- Atlantic City

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windowAtlantic City (released in the US in 1981), directed by Louis Malle, is a terrific movie that leaves you wishing for another hour with these characters. It stars Susan Sarandon as Sally, a woman from Saskatchewan Canada, who now lives in Atlantic City. The movie opens with her neighbor Lou (played by Burt Lancaster) watching Sally through their facing windows as she performs a nightly ritual of rubbing lemon juice on her skin and washing it off. Lou used to be a small time hood for the mob. He used to protect the wife of the boss. His big story is he shared a cell with Bugsy Siegel.

Sally is trying to make a better life for herself; she is working at the seafood counter at a buffet in one of the casinos. But Sally wants a more; she is taking classes to become a coupier and dreams of moving to Monaco. She listens to opera and French language lessons on her little portable radio which she carries around in her purse.lou

However, things go awry for Sally when her husband shows up in town. We had previously met Dave (played by Robert Joy) when he had stolen a small package of drugs from a phone booth. With Dave comes Sally’s pregnant sister Chrissie (played by Hollis McLaren). Sally is obviously angry, Dave had messed things up for her in Las Vegas and then knocked up her sister and took off. Atlantic City is a new start lou and davefor Sally, a new chance and she doesn’t want Dave and Chrissie around.

She lets them stay one night in her apartment and then runs off to her coupier class. Dave goes off in search of a connection to sell the stolen drugs to and runs into Lou who helps him. Things don’t go so well for Dave and Lou ends up with the cash, the drugs and the connection to sell them.

Lou is revitalized by the circumstances and buys himself a snazzy new suit. He is a big shot with the shoe shine guy he meets in the bathroom, the two knew each other “back when,” and Lou tips him big. Things take a turn for the worse when the men who Dave stole the drugs from come after Sally and Lou.

Malle got the funding to make Atlantic City in 1979 with the stipulation that he complete filming by the end of 1979. He cast his girlfriend at the time, Susan Sarandon, who suggested her playwright friend John Guare to write the screenplay. Guare suggested setting the story in Atlantic City, and Malle created a fascinating time capsule of the city as the old buildings fell and the new ones began. They started filming at the end of October, and finished by December 31st.dave

You don’t have to dig too deep for the metaphor in Atlantic City. In 1979, when this movie was made, Atlantic City was going through revitalization. Legalizing gambling was their solution to urban decay, and Malle does a great job showing the old and the new. Sally’s apartmeposter2nt is half boarded up and due for demolition. The casino where she works is 1979 swanky, all red velvet and mirrors. So, right, metaphor time? Everyone’s got dreams—Sally is going to be a coupier in Monaco, Lou used to be a big time hood, and is the great protector who can save Sally from the men who are after her, Sally is an intriguing mystery in the window rubbing lemon juice on her arms, and Atlantic City is gonna make it this time. And when reality sets in and things don’t work out so well? They adjust.

endI was highly disappointed that as a movie funded by French and Canadian studios and directed by none other than Louis Malle himself, Atlantic City had an almost hopeful ending. And in 1979, the city, like the movie, had all sorts of reasons to be optimistic. Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal was in their future. When I lived in New York I used to love to go to Atlantic City, it was the cheapest weekend getaway I could afford. As I watched this film,  I found myself eating up the locations, looking for something familiar. I was delighted when they filmed a scene in the iconic White House sub shop. Little did they know what would happen in 30 years? But don’t feel bad for Atlantic City, it’s due for re-revitalization soon.

[Why Watch This? Retro Movie Reviews] Jaws

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The cynical among you may scoff at my choice of Steven Speilberg’s Jaws (1975) as the best 4th of July movie ever. So let me appeal to the cynics and say that in a world where a Google search for “best patriotic movies” comes up with:

  • Independence Day– ok, I guess, Will Smith kills aliens, the White House gets blowed up, yay America!
  • I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy– James Cagney tap dancing in tight pants. USA! USA!
  • 1776– William Daniels plays John Adams and Ken Howard plays Thomas Jefferson. They sing a lot. Hmmm, god bless America?
  • The Patriot– sorry, I will no longer, ever, ever, ever, watch another cheesy Mel Gibson movie. Sorry, nope. And, btw Google, dude’s Australian.
  • Then there is a bunch of movies about war and stuff. Yeah, I saw Saving Private Ryan once. Act of Valor, that one about United Flight 93, Band of Brothers (wasn’t that a TV show?), Born on the 4th of July (I never saw this one, but isn’t it critical of America, kind of?), war movie, war movie, war movie. OK, I get it. War=Patriotism or something like that, whatever.

However, I would suggest that to whichever Google “best of” list Gods are out there, they are overlooking the best movie about the 4th of July ever made. What’s that you say? JAWS! Of course! One mean shark terrorizes a New England island village. Munch, munch, munch!chrissy

In case you don’t know the plot, here is a brief synopsis: The movie opens with our young doomed Chrissy hanging out on the beach with a bunch of youngsters getting drunk. She makes eyes at a blond guy, they strip their clothes off and run toward the water. Chrissy swims out and starts to tread water. Blondie passes out at the water’s edge—typical. Anyway a truly terrifying scene unfolds where Chrissy is dragged through the water while screaming in pain until she finally disappears under the surface.mayor

Chief Brody (played by Roy Scheider) gets the missing person’s report on poor Chrissy and goes out to the beach to investigate. Chief Brody is the chief of police of Amity island, a quaint little bucolic island in New England. Think Martha’s Vineyard, cause, that’s where they filmed it and lots of the “locals” are played by actual locals. 4th of July is a big weekend for Amity island, the mayor and business owners are gearing up for the influx of tourists. The first thing we learn about Brody is he’s from New York, so an “outsider” and then we learn thatbrody at beach he hates the water. So why did he move to an island? “It’s only an island if you look at it from the water.”

They find Chrissy’s body, think it’s a shark attack, Chief Brody goes nuts closing beaches, calling the Oceanographic Institute, pulling people out of the water. But wait, Chief Brody, the rest of the town says, don’t overreact, it was jusbeach chaost a boat propeller, not a shark. You can’t close the beaches on the 4th of July. So he re-opens and then goes to the beach with his kids, cause, you know, why not? Things don’t go well, a dog and a young child get eaten. But the town, and it’s sleazy mayor played by Murray Abraham who should be commended for his blazer choices, refuse to close the beach. Chief Brody is frantic, he and Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfus) from the Oceanographic Institute think it’s a Great White. They take some precautions, boats are patrolling, spotters are up in towers.

boat guyBut, you know, because it’s the way things go, it doesn’t go well. Humans can’t have hubris in the face of nature. Someone else dies (in actually my favorite shot in the movie: a guy in a boat who is trying to help Chief Brody’s son on his sailboat gets tipped over and we get our first glimpse of the shark as he eats the poor man, the shot reminds of me of a painting I used to love at the MFA in Boston called Watson and the Sharwatson and the sharkk by John Singleton) and now the town is serious about killing the damn shark. They hire Quint (played by Robert Shaw) and Brody and Hooper go out with him.

There’s a lot of spectacular stuff I’m glossing over. Quint is manic in his relentless pursuit of the shark to the point that he dooms their venture. In a famous scene we learn that Quint was a sailor on the USS Indianapolis, the one that was sunk by a torpedo and all the sailors went in to the sea where they got gobbled up by hungry tiger sharks. This gives us some insight into castQuint’s fervor. Finally Brody shoots the damn shark and life is returned to normal on good ol’ Amity Island. Side note: if you have a moment, I highly recommend the documentary about the making of Jaws that came out a few years ago. There are all sorts of great stories involving midgets, malfunctioning sharks, and drunken actors. Good stuff.

There you have it—guy fights the machine, conquers nature, restores order, all set to a kick ass soundtrack that any five year old can play on the piano. And tell me you haven’t tried.

Come on, what’s more American than being the guy who knows what’s going on but no one will listen to him so they all die and shootsultimately he proves he’s right and kills a shark. It’s practically a brief summary of the Declaration of Independence right there. Thomas Jefferson is all like “Being ruled by Britain stinks!” and the rest of America is all like: “Nah, it’s ok, we don’t mind paying taxes and stuff.” People die, more people die, and then it’s like, “Wait a second, being ruled by Britain does stink!” And then well, you know what happens next: Thomas Jefferson kills a shark!

tjI’ve been criticized in the past about my cursory attention to history, so I would caution any youngsters out there from providing this answer on their next history test about the American Revolution. But, I stand by the gist of what I’m saying. Sharks that eat hippie chicks, young boys and dogs named Pippin deserve to die. It’s the American way.

[Why Watch This- Retro Movie Reviews] Cleo de 5 a 7

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cityWhile watching Cleo de 5 a 7 (1962) (also know as Cleo from 5 to 7) over the weekend, I was struck by how relevant the film feels in 2014. The first time I saw it 20 years ago I was more caught up in the French New Wavy-ness of it. I love a good French New Wave film- all hand held cameras and black and white, the life and light of the Paris streets, that is the stuff that gets my blood pumping.

But what is fascinating about Cleo de 5 a 7 is that it operates on two levels. The first level is the stark almost documentary style of the film. The second level is how we perceive the world through Cleo’s point of view. The film happens in real time from 5 pm to 7 pm (technically 6:30 pm) as Cleo waits to call her doctor to find out if she has cancer.

The film starts with Cleo at the fortune teller having tarot cards read. From there, we follow her to a café, to a hat store and back to her aparmirrortment. Cleo, portrayed by the flawless Corrine Marchand, is a pop singer, she is beautiful, she moves through the streets of Paris with her hair piled on top of her head in a crazy concoction. Everywhere she goes there are mirrors and reflective surfaces that she uses to gaze at herself. She consoles herself: “Ugliness is a kind of death. As long as I am beautiful I am more alive than them.” Ok, so maybe it’s hard to sympathize with Miss Cleo, but she is beautiful, so, you know, go with it.

Once Cleo and her maid return to her apartment, what we had suspected to be true becomes clear. swingNobody knows the gravity of Cleo’s illness and she doesn’t tell them because they don’t take her seriously. Her rich boyfriend stops by (played by José Luis de Vilallonga who you may recognize as the man Holly Golightly almost marries in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and flatters her, calls her “his pearl,” but seems unconcerned that she is not feeling well. Her songwriters come and make fun of her for being sick, clearly they believe Cleo to be spoiled and frivolous. I mean, come on, she has a swing in her bedroom. A swing.

But then, in an emotional moment Cleo sings the affecting song “Sans Toi” (Without You) and it hits a little too close to home. In a fit of emotion, she pulls the crazy wig from her head (it’s a wig?!), puts on a black dress and hits the Parisian streets again. Even though Cleo is more beautiful now, with her platinum hair in a smart cut, her black dress with the pleats, the emotions are different. You feel her tension and her isolation as she walks the streets. She seeks out an old friend to confide in, and then eventually ends up in the park where she meets a soldier who is about to ship off to fight in the Algerian war. (If there are any other French New Wave geeks out there, you may enjoy the short little film she watches with her friend that stars Jean-Luc Goddard and Anna Karina. If you don’t know who those 2 people are, you may wonder what the point of the weird little short film is. What’s the point? Who knows, I don’t, watch and let’s discuss)

cafeDid I mention that Cleo is beautiful? Yeah, probably. What I noticed this time is how everyone else in this film is not. She moves through the streets and the cafes and all the faces you see are normal people, haggard, wrinkled, big noses and small eyes. They all turn to watch her, look at her, because how can you not? She is a pearl, remember? Her new soldier friend refers to the two of them as “The pearl and the frog.” Cleo and the soldier form a quick bond. She tells him about her potential illness, he understands because he is about to go to war. We learn her real name is Florence and that Cleo is short for Cleopatra. Their scenes together are sweet, he teases her, they walk through the park. Eventually he convinces her to gbuso directly to the hospital to find out her diagnoses. He will go with her and then she can go to the train station with him to see him off to war. They make it to the hospital, they find the doctor and…I won’t give it away. Not knowing is half the fun.

Agnes Varda, the writer and director, was a pioneer of the French New Wave. Cleo is her second feature film. She is also considered to be a pioneer in feminist cinema. Prior to this she had made a documentary about how a pregnant woman relates to the Mouffetard, which is a famous outdoor food market in Paris. You may (or may not) be wondering to yourself how this is considered feminist cinema. A hungry pregnant woman goes to a food market. A shallow pop singer thinks she has cancer. I think it goes back to the film’s point of view. This is Cleo’s story and whether we like her or not, sympathize with her or not, we experience the world as she does for the 90 minutes we spend with her.

Even in 2014 there aren’t many movies or tv shows that have a strong female point of view, where the main female character is interesting, flawed, etc. and not just an accessory or afterthought to the male characters. I think too, it so relevant to the reality tv show world we live in right now, it’s kind of like what would Kim Kardashian do if she suddenly needed the world to take her seriously? I mean, I know, they would make a “very special episode” of KUWTK where there was some “grave” diagnosis, and in between the shameless product placement, we worried for a second that maybe Kim would die of some horrible disease or something.

Wait…it’s too easy right? You’d think less of me if I made the joke. But what if you knew Kim, you were her friend or her maid or something. Would you take her seriously? What if she walked out of her mega mansion in Calabasas and hit the streets. What if we felt her anxiety as the time ticks away, every second that she feels it, every minute that she feels it. We feel the slow minutes, as she maybe gets in a taxi and ridesoldiers through the streets of Calabasas, we feel the fast minutes as she laughs in a park with a total stranger. We feel her terror when she glimpses frightening ugly death masks in the window of some boutique in Malibu. Does this change how we feel about her?

We might think no, and it’s the same with Cleo, except that when she finds out, when she has her answer, we realize that it doesn’t even matter if it’s good news or bad news, it’s just that she knows the answer. Her relief is our relief and we all can’t help but smile.