The Wizard of Oz

I think every kid has THAT MOVIE growing up. You know, the one you watched every day & had memorized. The Wizard of Oz was my movie. It was my life. There’s home movies of me singing songs from the movie, playing with Wizard of Oz related toys, or explaining the plot in details to my mother. I also used to create elaborate stories about how me and my “husband” the Tin Man  would go on double dates with my best friend Dorothy and her husband the Scarecrow (rewatch that movie, they totally had a thing). I may have been a strange child.

This movie is one of those classics that could not be improved upon by modern film wizardry.  If made today, the Cowardly Lion would most likely be CGI but he wouldn’t have the personality Bert Lahr gave the character. One of the most depressing things that has happened to the filmmaking process, in my opinion, is how many movies are just people standing in front of a green screen with all the magic added later by computers. The fact that the land of Oz was made by real hands and that Dorothy actually walked down the yellow brick road, makes everything a little more special to me.

The road to Oz was fraught with many setbacks. The film had five separate directors and countless rewrites. There were many subplots added to “punch up” the script, that were later discarded. It’s amazing how wrong this film could have gone. They almost cut “Over the Rainbow” for Christ’s sake! Ray Bolger who played the Scarecrow was originally cast as the Tin Man and forced Buddy Ebsen to switch parts with him. Ebsen agreed and then was almost killed by the Tin Man make-up and was taken off the film. This was also one of countless classic movies that wasn’t as well received when it was first released. It was panned by critics and barely made its money back. When it was rereleased ten years later, critics raved about it and it became event viewing.

Watching this film as an adult, I was surprised to see how effeminate the Cowardly Lion is. While Lahr said he modeled his performance after Curly Howard from The Three Stooges and the character himself was inspired by William Jennings Bryan, many have come to believe the Lion was gay. He calls himself as a “sissy” and sprinkles many other gay euphemisms into his very campy performance. Some believe Dorothy immediately accepting the gay lion is one of the reasons why Garland became the gay icon she is today. The Lion even refers to himself as a “friend of Dorothy”, which was a popular code for homosexuals to identify each other.

The film is somewhat bittersweet for me to watch now, knowing what I know about Garland’s post Oz life. Failed marriages, rumored abortions, drug addiction forced on her by the studio demanding she take pills to lose weight. She was one of the most beloved screen icons of all time and she died almost penniless at 47 of a drug overdose. To see her sweet face, the ultimate symbol of purity and know how much pain she would later experience is almost a perfect analogy for growing up.

Fun fact:

Judy Garland’s daughter Liza Minelli was briefly married to Jack Haley Jr, the son of the Tin Man

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L.A. Confidential

This is a movie that is pretty much made for me. It’s a film noir with cursing and realistic violence! People wearing 50s clothing and sex! I really don’t know why modern film noir hasn’t become more of a thing. Every couple of years one comes out and everyone goes crazy for it but it never really takes off.

This films has one of the best ensemble casts ever. Every character is fully formed and could carry their own movie. This film was the big break for both Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, won Kim Basinger a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and features on the of best death scenes ever, but more about that later.

Russell Crowe plays Bud White, a cop known for his muscle and for going out of his way to protect abused women.  After his partner is killed, White stumbles across a prostitute named Lynn (Basinger) and realizes that his partner’s death was part of something much bigger. Used by his captain to beat confessions out of criminals, White is written off as nothing but a dumb oaf, but he is able to uncover a police scandal involving top officers. His relationship Lynn and his antagonistic rivalry with fellow cop Ed Exley, brings him to his lowest point before allowing him become the man and cop he was meant to be.

Guy Pearce plays Ed Exley, a cop who lives in his father’s shadow as he rises the ranks in the police force and doesn’t care who he destroys in the process. Exley uses politics to earn promotions, but gains enemies among his fellow officers in the process. When he discovers the case that made him a hero, might not be closed afterall, he is reminded why he became a cop in the first place and sets out to make things right no matter what the consequences. Pearce  has a talent for creating characters that you like despite yourself. Exley is blinded by ambition but when he is allowed to show his actual skills as a cop, he is an artist. The scene were he forces a confession from the Nite Owl suspect is orchestrated perfectly, even though he doesn’t have the right men.

Kevin Spacey’s Jack Vincennes, is my favorite character of his by far. He plays a smooth-talking cop who is a technical adviser for a Dragnet-type television show when he’s not setting up photo ops for his friend’s tabloid magazine.  When a set up ends with the death of a young actor, he realizes how destructive his posturing is and assists Exley after they realize their cases may intertwine. Unfortunately, he trusts the wrong man and is killed when he uncovers too much. His death scene is my favorite of all-time. He plays it subtly, with a moment of shock as he puts together the pieces. He utters his final words and chuckles, knowing this will eventually lead to his killer exposing himself and then lights out. You see the life leave Spacey’s eyes.

This film is one of the many throughout history that was nominated for a best picture Oscar and lost to a lesser film. It was released the year of Titanic, and while James Cameron’s epic won the prize, it has become of the biggest jokes in movie history, while L.A. Confidential is still considered by many to be one of the best films of it’s decade.

Favorite Quote:

Ed Exley: Shut up! A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker.
Johnny Stompanato: Hey!
Ed Exley: She just looks like Lana Turner.
Jack Vincennes: She *is* Lana Turner.
Ed Exley: [stunned] What?
Jack Vincennes: She *is* Lana Turner.
[Lana throws a drink in Ed’s face]

Duck Soup

If there’s a subject I could, in any way, be an expert on, it would be The Marx Brothers. I have read a lot about them to the point where I can read a biography and not really learn anything new. I think The Marx Brothers humor, particularly Groucho’s, has defined me as a person and as a writer. Groucho’s word play requires you to have a certain level of  intelligent and there’s this random “where did that come from?” element to a lot of his jokes that has influenced comedians to this day. I would defined my generation’s sense of humor as a love of randomness. I think a lot that comes from the sometimes surreal comedy of The Marx Brothers.

Duck Soup is The Marx Brothers most perfect movie. The Marx Brothers were ahead of their time and their films are very effected by this. They started out in vaudeville and performed as a comedy act for close to two decades before they could make their first film. They attempted to make a silent film, but the results were so horrendous they were rumored to bury the evidence somewhere in New Jersey. They had to wait until 1929, the first year of sound in films, to make their cinematic debut, and at that point Chico, Harpo, & Groucho were all around 40 at the time, an alarming age for a group known for their high energy. Another handicap they experienced, was that the studio system had  a very stringent definition of what a film needed. Romantic leads were forced into almost every Marx Brothers movie because executives didn’t believe movie-goers would stand for 90 minutes of two middle-aged baffoons running around and cracking jokes. Little did they know, decades later, new fans would be fast-forwarding past all that romantic crap! Duck Soup is their first film without any real love element and also has an element of political satire. They had dip their toe into satirical territory before, but this was their most bold example. Groucho singing at his inauguration ” If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait til I get through with it” and saying they can’t call off the war because he all ready paid a month’s lease on the battlefield, should speak to anyone who came of age while Bush was president. It makes you wonder what their films would have been like if they were always allowed to tackle such serious subject matter.

This film includes one of their most famous routinizes, the mirror scene. Chico and Harpo play spies who are trying to steal war plans from Groucho’s President Rufus T. Firefly. They  make their way into the President’s mansion and in order to avoid being caught by Margaret Dumont’s Mrs Teasdale, they both independently disguise themselves as Groucho. Being that they are all real brothers, when you have them dressed identically, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart. Groucho  catches Harpo who pretends to his mirror image, copying his every move, well almost. It becomes increasingly ridiculous as the two men became so focus on trying to trick each other, they are blind to obvious evidence that they are not, in fact, mirror images of each other, like walking around each other. For a group known for being loud and crazy, it’s interesting that one of their most famous scenes is completely silent. They weren’t the first to do the mirror routine and they certainly weren’t the last, but it is among the best versions captured on film.

Great Quote

Rufus T. Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he’s dead.
Rufus T. Firefly: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Rufus T. Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Rufus T. Firefly: Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.

High Fidelity

I will admit, a big reason I love this film is my lifelong movie crush on John Cusack. This is, in my opinion, his best role.  Minus the relationship drama, Rob Gordon is basically my ideal guy. Really passionate about some aspect of pop culture (be it film or music, etc) and a little cranky but not mean about it. See my husband ; )

I think this film is fairly honest about relationships. It shows relationships that aren’t perfect but aren’t completely awful. You don’t get to see that in film as much, but that’s the majority of relationships. I’m sure most people know a couple that are in a relationship like the one Rob has with Lili Taylor’s Sarah. People that stay with someone out of fear of dying alone. Or a couple that are like Rob & Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Charlie, where one person is waiting for the other to realize they are dating someone below them, and move on to someone that’s more their speed. When Rob is tortured by fantasies of the crazy sex his ex must be having with her new boyfriend, everyone has done this to themselves. Rob is the every man at his neurotic best.

There’s a line where Rob says that relationships are not about what you’re like,but about what you like. You,as a person, are define by your favorite films, bands, television shows, etc. I am behind this theory. I think you can learn a lot about a person by looking at what they are passionate about. I, for one, couldn’t be with someone who didn’t share my passion for film, or someone who couldn’t talk to me about music, or who had different political beliefs. You can be a wonderful person, with a heart of gold but if your favorite show is Two & a Half Men, I could not date you.

I first saw this movie when I was in high school, right around when I was starting to write screenplays over novels. The dialogue in the in this films was like delicious candy to me. Love the device of  Rob talking to the camera. He really draws you in, like he is having a conversation with you. So much of the script could have gone horribly wrong in less capable hands. I’ve wanted to rewrite this movie and have tried to every time I’ve started a new script.

Rob is saved from being a Nice Guy TM by realizing what part he played in the end of his relationship with Laura and what he needs to do to be  a good boyfriend to her. He spends much of  the movie looking for excuses but he can only move forward when he finally takes responsibility.  It’s kind of a coming of age story for a generation who takes a little longer to grow up.

Favorite Quote: Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?

Some Like It Hot

Named by the AFI as the best comedy of all time this film holds a very special place in my heart. Mostly for being Marilyn Monroe’s greatest movie. The woman had a presence that was larger than life, but was in a lot of clunkers, as the studio system didn’t really now what to do with her except use her as eye candy. Her character in Seven Year Inch doesn’t even have a name! Her Sugar Kane (aka Sugar Kowalczyk), while “not very bright” by her own admission, has an optimism and a sadness that was what made Monroe the icon she is today. She dreams of finding herself a millionaire, but keeps falling for bum saxophone players.

When jazz musicians, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon, witness a mob murder, they are forced to disguise themselves as women and join an all-girl band,  which features the beautiful Sugar Kane as lead singer. While Tony Curtis is the obvious romantic lead, I always wished Sugar could have fallen for Lemon’s Jerry/Daphne character. Once Jerry becomes Daphne (he was going to be Geraldine, but never liked that name), it’s like he truly comes alive. Jerry is a worrier, but Daphne is always cracking jokes, ending almost every line of dialogue with a giggle. He even finds an admirer in millionaire Osgood Fielding III. The scene where Daphne announces “her” engagement, had to be reshot because test audiences laughed so hard, they were missing subsequent jokes. They gave Lemon maracas so he could dance around the room while the audience laughed. This addition makes the scene for me and really plays up how Jerry has completely lost himself in Daphne. I also love that while Curtis alters his voice when playing Josephine (with assistance of dubbing) , Lemon only changes his voice slightly, still sounding very much like a man. He also declined lessons to learn how to walk like a lady, wanting to look like a man trying to pass as woman and failing.

The movie’s excellence is probably a testament to Billy Wilder’s skill as a director. Monroe was notoriously difficult on the set, arriving hours late and frequently locking herself in her dressing room. There’s a famous story where it took her 50 takes to say one line correctly, and another 40 to say another line right in the same scene! There were also stories about Curtis and Monroe hating one another and dreading their love scenes. Right before he died, Curtis claimed they had an affair and during filming she was pregnant with his child. Class act to the end, that one! Everything runs so smoothly and the chemistry between all the leads is so strong, it’s hard to believe that there was so much turmoil of the set.

The only thing that rubs me the wrong way about this film is that, in order to woo Sugar, Joe/Josephine creates a third persona. He introduces himself to Sugar as a millionaire who doesn’t know how to love, complete with glasses and a Cary Grant accent (the film takes place in the 20s, so while viewers know who Curtis is imitating, the characters think he’s just using a funny voice). Joe knows Sugar wants a millionaire and knows she’s been hurt by a lot of guys like him, so he lies in order to win her heart. This is the difference between the two men. Early in the movie, Jerry comes close to revealing his true identity to Sugar when it seems he has a chance to get her in bed. Joe knows he’s not good for her.  But, of course, she falls for the womanizer who has all ready lied to her every moment she’s known him as oppose to the adorable Jerry.  But if she didn’t, we wouldn’t have the classic ending. Well, no movie’s perfect.

Fun fact: One of the few American movies ever given a “Condemned” rating by the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency.

Goodfellas

Goodfellas is one of those films where every choice is perfect. The directing, the writing, the acting, the music, all brilliant and completely immerses you in the violent yet alluring world Scorsese has created. Even as you watch these people do horrible things and pay dearly in the end for their actions, you still kind of leave thinking “Being a gangster seems pretty sweet.

One of the ways the film tricks you is by making these characters likable. Henry is charming, Tommy is funny (although don’t call him that!), Jimmy is everyone’s big brother. A huge issue I have with Raging Bull & Casino is that there’s no likable characters and I think having charismatic leads  really sucks you in, justifying their despicable behavior.  I remember the first time I watch them movie, I was not shocked by the stealing or the fact that these men kicked a man to death and buried the body TWICE, but when they showed “girlfriend night” at the club, so disappointed. One of the lies they all feed each other throughout the film is that the life is about family but it is really about men serving themselves as they see fit. You want something, take it. Someone gets in your way, kill them.

One of the factors of mob life that this film explores that many gangster movies ignorez, is the life of the mob wife. I always wished we could have gotten a glimpse at what Mrs. Corleone thought about everything going on in The Godfather. While the film’s focus is Henry Hill’s rise and fall in the crime world, his wife Karen has an even more fascinating transformation. Henry always wanted to live the life, but Karen’s initial introduction is a lot more complicated. She is initially appalled by the other mob wives. She finds them tacky and is shocked by their talk of beating their children, but by the end of the film she’s helping Henry deal drugs and sticking a gun into her panties. When she shows off her gaudy ass  house, complete with mutli-colored rock wall that retracts via remote control, you are watching someone’s soul die.

The soundtrack includes some of my favorite  songs of all time: “Gimmie Shelter” by the Rolling Stones, “Layla” by Derek & the Dominos, “What is Life?” by George Harrison. Scorsese marries visuals and music so beautifully. I think if he had come up as filmmaker twenty years later, he would have cut his teeth as a video director. The ability to take classic songs and change how you identify them with new images, is a rare gift.

Another thing that this film demonstrates, is how much real life gets in the way of a good story. A lot of my favorite films that are based on real life, feel free to ignore facts in the name of a more interesting fim. Henry is portrayed as this slick, competent mover and shaker, when in real life, the man was a screw up who got himself kicked out of the witness protection program by bragging about being the guy from Goodfellas to anyone who would listen. Every few years he’ll call Howard Stern with some outrageous claims about his time in the life. Nobody wants to see a movie about that guy!

Fun fact: Producers originally wanted the film to star Tome Cruise & Madonna!

BRINGING UP BABY

What I love the most about this movie is, while I grew up mostly knowing for Katharine Hepburn for her dramatic work and for winning more Oscars than any other actor, she has amazing comic timing. It’s especially impressive considering director Howard Hawks had to hire people to teach her to be funny.  Playing an early manic pixie dreamgirl prototype, she finds herself bumping into Cary Grant in increasing outrageous and embarrassing situations, then eventually she begins to lure him, using her mischievous pet leopard, Baby, as bait. The two are a delight together, probably my favorite cinematic duo because they are two of the biggest film stars ever, and they share the screen so effortlessly, neither one ever trying to steal the spotlight for themselves.

The first half hour can almost exhaust you, there’s so many gags per minute, and you haven’t even met the leopard yet! If this film was made today, they would probably rely heavily on improv as Hepburn & Grant play two people who really shouldn’t spend more than five minutes together, but keep finding themselves tied to one another. This is one of the strongest examples of classic Screwball comedy, with a very strong script. A clearly leads to B, which follows smoothly to C.

I have such a soft spot for the Great Miss Kate, due to her independent, outspoken personality. It’s great to watch her have so much fun playing against type as the flighty heiress. She probably has a dozen costume changes in a film where the main action takes place over 36 hours. Her outfit are continually outrageous and most of them have wacky hats. Remember when women had to have a hat for every occasion? The veil she wears in the bar scene baffles me and it’s really fun seeing this woman who was mostly know for daring to wear pants, playing a fashion plate. Although to see the most over the top outfit she ever wore in a film, see the metallic moth dress she wore in Christopher Strong, complete with antenna!

While Grant is the straight man, his explanation for why he’s wearing a woman’s dressing gown is a moment I have to rewind over and over every time I watch it. It marks,possibly, the first uses of the term “gay” for homosexual in pop culture and is really interesting when you think about the rumors that followed Grant’s sexuality.

Appreciation for Bringing Up Baby has grown with time. It was notoriously considered a flop when it was released and Hepburn was seen as “box office poison”, only regaining her place in Hollywood with the success of The Philadelphia Story. It is now on the AFI’s top 100 films list. When discussing the film’s cult status decades after its release, Hepburn asked “Where you when we needed you, Dear Viewers?”

While this film inspires either absolute adoration or complete annoyance, it would probably be a good date movie. You probably don’t want to be with a guy who thinks Hepburn is annoying when you find her cute as a button.

Favorite line:  He’s three years old, gentle as a kitten, and likes dogs.” I wonder whether Mark means that he eats dogs or is fond of them? Mark’s so vague sometimes.