5/29/14: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders

“Jerry Garcia & I are very much alike. Music is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the pure faith into the realm of spirituality. Our methods have differed. I am but a shadowy reflection of him. But I didn’t know this at first. It took a nudge to for me to see the light.” That nudge came at Grateful Dead 9/2/78 – Giants Stadium. Heading there, I’d seen Jerry live just 4 times. The show was fantastic, as expected. What wasn’t expected was the Diamond Vision ‘Thank You for helping fund our upcoming shows in Cairo’ message that followed the Encore: 3 shows, 9/14-16 – Gizah Sound & Light Theater. “You see, it seems that for the 2 prior years, the Dead had teams of scouts running around the world looking for all sorts of mystical venues. Jerry was a nut for the notion. He was crazy obsessed with Egyptology.” In fact, a quote from the Egyptian Book of the Dead is encrypted on the front cover of their first, self-titled album: In the land of the dark, the ship of the sun is driven by the Grateful Dead. “And in 1978, apparently, Kent R. Weeks’ UC Berkeley Theban Mapping Project was going on in the desert outside Cairo.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the band helped fund it, and our wild ride that Saturday aided generations to come study the Cradle of Civilization.

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Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark takes place mainly in Egypt in 1936. It picks up where Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments left off, in the Cradle of Civilization: Moses secured the Stone Tablets in the Ark of the Covenant. But the Ark was lost to history perhaps a millennium before the birth of Christ. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is a professor of archaeology, a securer of antiquities, and sort of a Depression era cowboy. The Nazi’s are on the trail of the Ark in Egypt, and Indy is commissioned by the U.S. Army to get it first because “an army which carries the Ark before it is invincible”. Karen Allen plays Indiana’s ex-girlfriend (Marion). And Ronald Lacey is great as the evil Nazi Major Toht (spelled T-o-h-t but pronounced ‘Toad’, the German word for Death/The Grim Reaper when spelled T-o-d). He’s never called by name in the film. He got the role because he reminded Spielberg [impersonating] of Peter Lorre.

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Raiders, the highest grossing film of 1981, was nominated for 8 Oscars at the 54th Academy Awards, winning 4. It also received a Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects Editing. Special Achievement Academy Awards are given for exceptional contributions to a film for which there is no category. They’re honored with an Oscar statuette. The 1st of 18 total Special Achievement Academy Awards thus far was given in ’73 to The Poseidon Adventure for Visual Effects. The most recent: In ‘95 for the First Feature-Length Computer-Animated Film, Toy Story. The coolest: 1978 for Alien, Creature and Robot Voices. Care to guess for what film? Yes, Star Wars! To receive a Special Achievement Award, a film must be over 40 minutes long, released in L.A County only once with a start time during that calendar year, on specific mediums, run for 7 consecutive days with proper credits, and submitted for consideration by a specified date. So, a movie must be submitted for Oscar consideration to receive a Special Achievement Award. Nomination is by special Board of Governors meeting and/or recommendation of the Animated Feature Film Award Screening Committee with 2 secret Board of Governors’ ballots: To determine which film(s) is/are eligible for the Award(s) based on most votes; and to vote Yes or No for each Nominee, with 2/3 present voting Yes for the Award to be granted. So now, watch the embedded trailer below, then add Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark to your Netflix Queue. “It’ll be a fitting end to your day’s pursuits. And maybe later a permanent addition to your anthology. Who knows? In a thousand years, it may even be worth something.” 4 Stars!!

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5/20/14: Back to the Future

BTTF

One of the best teachers I ever had was Tom Kmetzo from whom I took several courses at Mattatuck Community College, Waterbury CT (now Naugatuck Valley Community Technical College), including Creative Writing  in the Fall of ’78 in which I helped my friend Mike with his project, Mr. Bill Goes to Waterbury. Mr. Bill was a clay clown-like guy from Saturday Night Live who invariably got smashed in the skits. So we made a Mr. Bill & took him to visit to Holy Land USA, the Carrie Welton Horse Fountain, and the Silas Bronson Library’s Ben Franklin Statue. His final destination was to be the Union Station Clock Tower from which he’d rappel, slip & get flattened like a Play-Doh pancake. Approval to go up to the 318 steps to the observation deck of the 240’ landmark was challenging. 7 months earlier, it had been added to the National Registry of Historic Places with whom we had to fill out an application. Then 6 weeks after that, on 11/5/78, we received this letter [“‘Save the Clock Tower’ flyer], ‘This is it! This is the answer. It says here that we can go up the clock tower at precisely 10:04 a.m. next Saturday morning! If…If we could somehow…harness this twine…to Mr. Bill…it just might work. Next Saturday morning, we’re sending Mr. Bill off the Clock Tower! [pointing up]’”. But Security forgot we were up there and the “heavy” door closed & locked behind us, leaving us out in the cold high above the city. Like 2 idiots, we shouted to the bug-sized people on Meadow Street who couldn’t hear a thing we were saying. Some of them waved to us & smiled though, which was nice. After about an hour of futility, I decided to try the old ‘slide your Sears Card inside the lock latch’ trick & it worked.

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But enough with the silly college stories. It’s time to get Back to the Future & today’s Classic Blog from the summer of ’85, directed by Robert Zemeckis & starring Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, Crispin Glover as his father George, and Christopher Lloyd as the wacky scientist, Doc Brown. Despite their huge age difference, Marty & the Doc are good friends. When fate & Doc’s DeLorean Time Machine land Marty in 1955, Doc has to get him Back to Future before Marty interacts with his future parents & potentially impacts his & family’s future history. 2 more key roles are Lea Thompson as Marty’s Mom, Lorraine, and Thomas F. Wilson as the bully, Biff.   

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Back to Future, the top grossing film of the year, was also critically acclaimed, receiving the Best Sound Effects Oscar at the 58th Academy Awards. In addition, it was nominated for Original Screenplay (Zemeckis & Bob Dale), Sound, and Best Original Song for Huey Lewis & the News’ performance of The Power of Love. The soundtrack also includes the band’s Back in Time, and Huey himself appears in the film in an uncredited cameo as one of the Hill Valley High School student band audition judges.

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Back to the Future is a time travel film. In the Spring, I taught a course for UConn Waterbury’s OLLI Program on ways directors use time to engage audiences. Some other examples are: Repeating (Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day); reversing (Christopher Nolan’s Memento); expanding (Christopher Nolan’s Inception); real (Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men); abridging (Stephen Daldry’s The Hours); and distorting (Adriane Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder). If you can think of any others, add a Comment & tell us about them. In the meantime, watch the trailer embedded below then add Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future to your Netflix Queue and, when it arrives, jump in your DeLorean Time Machine and Save the Clock Tower!! 4 Stars!

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5/17/14: Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus

[Aristocratic British] “I’m Spartacus!”, Paulie Spartacus. But you can call me Paulie. My brother Mike is a vegetarian. I like to eat meat, especially chicken from Fimbria’s Poultry in Wolcott. The proprietor knows what I am going to say when I get there: “‘Oh, one fat one, Fimbria.’. And he hands it over. But I don’t eat oysters or snails? Not because I consider the eating of oysters or the eating of snails to be moral or immoral. It is all a matter of taste to me & therefore not a question of morals. My taste includes chicken but it does not include snails, nor does it include oysters. And while I am not a vegetarian, I do not consider anyone that is a vegetarian or a vegan to be immoral. However, they do tend to be rather gaunt, don’t they? As you can see, I have a tendency towards corpulence. Corpulence makes a man reasonable, pleasant and phlegmatic. Have you noticed the nastiest of tyrants are invariably thin?” But most of all you must not neglect the mind. I like to feed my head a good supply of beer & vodka & the like, which also helps keep me corpulent. A good body with a dull brain is as cheap as life itself.”

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Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 masterpiece, Spartacus, is played by Kirk Douglas. Spartacus, while not corpulent, had a keen mind, a fit body & cast iron buffalo ba…um, never mind. He’s a rebellious slave driven by dreams of freedom. After a particularly violent attack on one of his captors, he’s tied in the sun to rot when Batiatus (Peter Ustinov won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role at the 33rd Academy Awards), a Roman slave trader, spots him & is impressed with his non-corpulent body, keen mind & strong will. Batiatus decides to train Spartacus to be a gladiator where he quickly takes the lead in a slave rebellion against the tyranny of Rome. The film is based on the Third Servile War (aka The Gladiator War and The War of Spartacus) that took place from 73-71 BC. The cast is monumental & includes: Laurence Olivier as Crassus; Charles Laughton as Gracchus; and Tony Curtis as Antoninus. The picture won 3 additional Oscars: Color Art Direction; Color Costume Design; and Color Cinematography (Russell Metty).  But the credit went to Stanley, who became forever known as a master cinematographer.

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Douglas starred in Stanley’s previous & first legendary film, 1957’s anti-war drama, Paths of Glory. In his dual role as Spartacus’ Executive Producer, Kirk brought Kubrick on after one week of dissatisfaction with the original director, Anthony Mann. Douglas’ artistic influence on the film bothered Stanley so much that they never worked together again. Ya, I’m pretty obsessed with Kubrick. I’m currently teaching my 2nd Stanley Kubrick course for UConn’s OLLI Program, which is held at he Waterbury Campus. My 3rd is planned for the Winter. Please sign up (http://www.campusce.net/uconn/course/course.aspx?C=76&pc=52&mc=&sc=). I have 7 students so far, but the more the Strangelover. As you study him more, you’ll begin to notice his incredible influence on other filmmakers. Seemingly every fine movie these days pays homage to Stanley. As do his own movies. Supposedly, Eyes Wide Shut, his final picture, alludes to every one of his other 12 features. I haven’t looked for all of them…YET!!! If you watch movies closely, you’ll see the references. In the mean time, here’s a few you may find interesting: The Grand Budapest Hotel looks like Stanley was the Director of Photography; Transcendence is non-stop stream of references to 2001; in Edge of Tomorrow, a billboard with the image of the warrior, Rita, the female lead (Emily Blunt) is graffiti’d “Full Metal Bitch”;  the drive-in in Twister is playing The Shining, and 2 characters who are never referred to by name in the film are credited as Stanley and Kubrick; and in Back to the Future, Marty labels his amp CRM 114, the nuclear bomber’s radio model number in Dr. Strangelove. The recently released Birdman tributes Kubrick through its use of Steadicam tracking shots that bring Paths of Glory immediately to mind; and one of the backstage hallways of the St. James Broadway theatre, where most of the action takes place, is adorned with The Shining’s famous carpet though the hexagons are in miniature. And the middle segment of this year’s The Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror is the hilarious homage A Clockwork Yellow (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-NQhqxgw8I). So now, watch the trailer to Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus below, then add the picture to your Netflix Queue because, after all, “Kirk Douglas is Spartacus.” 4 Stars!

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5/12/14: Titanic (1997)

Titanic

The first time I set eyes on my wife of now 30 years, Cindy, it was 11/9/76. My family went to Papa Luigi’s, Waterbury to celebrate my parents’ 30th Anniversary and Cindy was our waitress. I decided immediately I had to have her but would be patient since my friend Steve got me a job there as a dishwasher starting New Year’s Day. They were dating…sort of. Through my annoying persistence & the nature of the restaurant business, we became best friends…but that was all. Then 11 months to the day after we met, I got the nerve to ask her for a date the following afternoon: A hike to its namesake at the top of the mountain in Black Rock State Park, Watertown. “It’s been 37 years, and I can still see the fall foliage from that day; the fresh paint on the picnic tables. The trail was rarely used. Black Rock was almost never set foot on.” When we got to the Rock, we talked a good deal & decided to go back to school together. “‘You know, my dream was always to run away & become an artist, living in a garret – poor but free’”, she said. ‘But I’m rethinking that position.’ I leaned over & tried to kiss her for the first time, worried that my advance would be rejected, but thinkin’, “‘When ya got nothing, ya got nothin’ to lose’”. It was not rejected. I was elated! I jumped up, stood on top of Black Rock, “world at my command” & shouted from the mountaintop, “‘I’m King of the World!’”. And because of my Princess, I still am.

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I opened my introduction to James Cameron’s 1997 masterpiece, Titanic, with a love story because that’s what this film is – a love story…set to the backdrop of a horrific tragedy: One of the worst nautical disasters ever. We all know the tale: The unsinkable ship – the largest in the world – did just that on 4/15/12, on her maiden voyage, having struck an iceberg just hours earlier. Titanic shines a spotlight on the bigoted upstairs-downstairs culture through the ship’s accommodations & the unlikely love story of Rose (Kate Winslet) & Jack (Leo DiCaprio). And how disaster is a titanic equalizer. It’s incredibly moving & brilliant: The winner of 11 Oscars in 1998 at the 70th Academy Awards. That tied the record for the most Oscars ever by a motion picture. It was nominated for another 3, tying the record for nominations as well. Kathy Bates’ fantastic portrayal of The Unsinkable Molly Brown was overlooked for a nomination. Gloria Stuart, in her Supporting Role as Old Rose, was not! Rose’s granddaughter Lizzy is played by Suzy Amis, Cameron’s wife since 2000. Titanic’s reception at the box office was equally titanic: The first film to gross $1 billion & the 5th highest grossing ever, when adjusted for inflation. The initial ticket sales frenzy was due in no small measure to recidivism by American teenage girls, a demographic not considered scholarly with respect to critical analysis as a rule. Titanic is the exception that proves it!

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Movies about major tragedies, be they natural or manmade, are called disaster films. They were very popular in the ‘70’s. Generally, the disaster is a sub-plot as it is in Titanic – a romance where Jack & Rose’s love escalates as time runs out. Great cinema is usually more about the human condition than plot, which is why you can see movies over & over. Other important disaster films: Fire! from 1901, probably the first; Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure; the original King Kong; The Towering Inferno; 1975’s The Hindenburg; and The Perfect Storm. “Ladies & gentlemen, it has been a privilege writing to you today” about the best disaster film ever made, James Cameron’s Titanic. Watch the trailer below then stream it Netflix for the first time, or the first time again! 4 Stars!

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