Since we’re all cooped up in our abodes while the plague ravishes the land I thought we’d put together a film appreciation class! Everyday my 14.5 year-old, we’ll call him Swanson, and I (and sometimes his mother, my wife) will take in, what I consider anyways, a classic of cinema. We’ll run the gamut from silent films to a few current selections. I’m going to try to keep it fun so he won’t get bored. It will be non-linear, as in we’ll pop around the 20th Century and explore theme’s, history, where we’re at and how did we get here. Feel free to play along and chime in with thoughts and suggestions!
The General (Buster Keaton – 1926) – Made on a rather large budge for the time – $750 K – and making only $475K – it was a big flop and almost ruined Keaton’s career. He later said it was the film he was most proud of. This action/comedy set during the beginning of the Civil War is known for it’s elaborate and crazy dangerous stunts. Watch for the scene when he rides on the cow catcher and tosses railroad ties to clear the way. Incredible.
Post – it was a fun film to watch again. I hadn’t seen it in ages. Cool score by the Alloy Orchestra. Swanson really liked it as well. When asked what he liked about it he replied, “It was funny, well-shot and I like that Buster Keaton guy. He’s short, has a big head and looks weird.” There ya have it.
Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly 1952) – Since we just watched a silent film and since Swanson loves musicals, I thought this would be the perfect film for tonight as it deals with the struggle of a film company as the adjust going from silent movies to “talkies” or, I guess, “singies” back in the day. Famous for Kelly’s wet rain number but don’t forget Donald, um, Sutherland…nope…Pleasence…nope…Duck….um nope…O’Connor! That’s it, and, of course, Debbie Reynolds. All are amazing.
Post – All enjoyed the fun dancey film. Lots of tap. Maybe too much? Naw. Swanson says, “put it on my staff picks!” He also commented that Gene Kelly looked like Spongebob Squarepants in during one particular number.
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz – 1942) Look at that cast – Bogey, Bergman, Lorre, Reins, Greenstreet, others! Although Casablanca was an A-list film with big stars and first-rate writers, no one involved with its production expected it to be anything other than one of the hundreds of ordinary pictures produced by Hollywood studio system which churned out films at an alarming rate. Who’s laughing now?
Post – I loved it. As did my wife. Swanson, not so much. He liked it but found it a little confusing. I guess one needs to know a little of the history of the time to put the film in context. Still, he admired Bogie’s enormous head.
Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock 1954) – Swanson’s seen the Simpsons version so now it’s time for the real thing.
The Third Man (Carol Reed 1949) – Nice to revisit the dank dark streets of post-war Vienna and get reacquainted with the friends of Harry Lime. Swanson liked it but of all the films we’ve watched for this club so far, it was his least liked. I’ll get him an American noir in his eyes soon enough.
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron – 2006) – I thought I’d treat Swanson to something a little more current – not just when the film was made (14 years ago!) but timely in it’s subject matter – pandemic, blame the immigrants etc. Told him to focus on the details – so much going on in the background and the intense single shot takes. Still holds up beautifully although it wasn’t his favourite film we’ve watched so far. I loved it.
The Haunting (Robert Wise 1963) – The Haunting (original – forget the lame remake) has been one of my favourite horror films (haunted house category) for such a long time. It was our first horror film for this class and I was quite excited to show Swanson this one. I told him to look for the use of sound, art direction, editing, camera angles and shadows and the fine black and white cinematography (instead of showing you ghosts and things) to create the unsettling atmosphere and give you the chills and the scares. And to my delight (and maybe a little surprise) he loved it! The odd angles and creepy statues were highlights for him. It goes on his staff pick shelf! That’s 4 out of 7. Not too shabby.
A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood 1935) – The first Marx Brothers movie and any of us had seen! And what a delight. Swanson and Wife really were head over heels for it while I enjoyed it but could have done with less opera singing and harp playing. Made us want to watch more and it goes on his staff picks! What are your favourite Marx Brothers movies?
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman 1978) – I thought it might be appropriate given the times we’re slogging through. I mentioned to watch for the hand-held camera, quick cuts, camera angles and use of background noises to heighten the feeling of paranoia. And to look for cameos from the director and star of the original (which we watched last year and it’s the version that I prefer although I like this version’s ending better). It was great to watch again although Swanson felt there was too much running.
The Bank Dick (Edward Cline 1940) – Another first – none of us had seen a W.C. Fields film before. This is a weird movie. Swanson really enjoyed it (more than I did) as it has a nice light comedic tone with a sprinkling of good laughs and ends with a crazy car chase. I enjoyed the child abuse and his strange relationship with his hateful family. Bonus points for having a character named Filthy McNasty.
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder 1944) Walter Neff looks at the glass of iced tea he’s been handed. “A little rum would get this on it’s feet”. A great line in a film filled with great lines. My favourite noir and now Swanson’s as well. A pleasure to watch again. On the staff pick wall it goes.
A surreal double bill!
Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel 1929) Thought I’d blow Swanson’s mind with 21 minutes of bizarre surreal imagery (as it blew my mind when I first saw it all those years ago). I still can’t believe this made in the 1920s. The eye slicing scene made him bury his head in a blanket. After that his comment was, “I don’t trust this film anymore”. Might be the best comment I’ve ever heard.
Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly 2001) – I’ve seen this film four times now (once the director’s cut – not recommended) and it’s still up for debate about what it’s all about and what actually happens (at least in my mind). Swanson loved it and we discussed the possibilities of what transpired for some time. but came up with no concrete answers. A great cult classic that still holds up incredibly well despite being almost 20 years old (!).
Duck Soup (Leo McCarey 1933) – Yes, another Marx Brothers film (watched upon recommendations made after viewing Night at the Opera). Pretty funny with a nice short run time. I think I enjoyed Night at Opera better, but this still has some inspired moments (the peanut vendor gags are gold). Swanson requested this one and he was quite enthralled with it. And I can see why Zeppo is the Shemp of the bunch. Not too sure why it was called duck soup – no ducks, no soup.
Little Shop of Horrors (Frank Oz 1986) – This was a Swanson pick. He’s a big fan of the stage production and soundtrack so what can I say? He enjoyed it (liked the play much more). I thought it was particularly dreadful – lame songs, flat direction, vaguely racist talking plant. I liked Steve Martin until I didn’t. I know it’s beloved by many but I cannot recommend this one at all.
What’s Up Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich 1972) – As this was one of my favourite comedies growing up, I was a tad apprehensive about watching it again in case it didn’t age well. Boy was I wrong. This is still one of the funniest, silliest, most wonderful of comedies. A young, sexy and totally charming Barbara Streisand leads a hilarious cast through a series of misunderstandings and mix-ups climaxing in one of the most hysterical and thrilling car chases ever. Swanson loved it as well. He said it’s probably his favourite of all the films we’ve watched so far! I was pleased as punch!
An American Werewolf in London (John Landis 1981) I thought I’d introduce Swanson to one of the earliest (that I remember anyways) examples of the horror/comedy genres combining for a tasty movie stew. For the most part it holds up – effects are still cool – but I forgot the “climax” starts in a porn theatre (not particularly necessary and vaguely uncomfortable to watch with a 14 year-old, “Did those places actually exist?” he asked) and all the ridiculous gory mayhem – people flying through windshields, heads crushed, decapitations, bodies strewn about during the monster’s final rampage! It was still fun but of the time for sure.
In a Lonely Place (Nicolas Ray 1950) – I’d been told by several people to watch this, so I did. Wow. What a great film. Bogart at his best – might be my favourite role he’s played. He’s sad, angry and pathetic. You’re still rooting for him even as he spirals out of control. A great mash-up of noir and 50’s melodrama. Swanson loved it as well. I’m constantly impressed by how much he enjoys these older films.
Robocop (Paul Verhoeven 1987) Some fun Friday night viewing! Still a great funny, violent satire. I love Verhoeven and now Swanson does as well. We especially laughed at the Ed-209 audition, the toxic waste fella and Ronny Cox’s long arms as he falls to his death. Good times.
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock 1960) Hard to believe this came out in 1960. It’s still great and chilling! The boy loved it as well. Rediscovering Hitch all over again myself! I want to live in that house!
The Road Warrior aka Mad Max 2 (George Miller 1981) – Still my all-time favourite action film. Melted my young brain when I accidentally stumbled across it in the theatres all those years ago. Sure Fury Road is glossier with a bigger budget, but pound for pound, gimme The Road Warrior any day. Oh, and the boy and wife both enjoyed the hell out it!
North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock 1959) Digested another Hitchcock film. Lots of fun, maybe a bit too long (I can think of a few scenes some scissors would have been appreciated) but top notch anyway. I was never a big Hitch fan but re-watching these past few has changed that opinion. Can’t wait for Vertigo! The boy is digging the old man as well.
Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson 1986) – “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!”, “I’ve had but a few ales”, “I want the finest wines know to humanity!” “Cool your boots, man” So many fine lines in this cult classic. I was worried that the boy wouldn’t be down with this funny and sad tale of down-on -their-luck actors who hightail to the country-side to rejuvenate with disastrous results. But he quite liked it (he like that fact the other guy is just called “I”). Nice to see these guys again.
Le Cercle Rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville 1970) – Look up “cool film” in the dictionary and you’ll find this wonderful French slice of crime life. Cool, not just in feeling and stature, but in the colour palette, the acting, the settings, just so cool. Wow. The boy quite enjoyed it but thought it was a bit too long (and there are no female characters in it at all). But I loved the pace and how it took it’s time to introduce the 4 main characters and how they all came together. Never boring, always cool.
Carrie (Brian De Palma 1976) – One of my favourite horror films growing up, this one still packs a punch. From the very uncomfortable opening shower scene to the amazing prom scene to the crucifixion scene to the great, weird last scene, Carrie still delivers the goods. And, especially, just after watching a few Hitchcock films it was fun to point out the influences on De Palma’s film. The boy loved it and that final shot scared the bejeezus out of him. Good times.
Safety Last! (Fred Neymeyer 1923) The forgotten (by some) contemporary of Chaplin and Keaton, Harold Lloyd is no slouch in the physical comedy department. Just watch and marvel at the 20 (or so) minute climax where he scales a building. Hold your breath laughs! Simply amazing. We all loved it (first time viewing for everyone!). A must watch for fans of this type of thing.
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (Stanley Kramer 1963) I remember seeing this when I was a kid and thinking it was the funniest thing ever. Looking back I wonder what I was thinking at all! Check out this cast of funny dudes (Sorry, women, I guess there wasn’t any funny ladies back then!)! Then why isn’t this film hilarious? We really enjoyed it – even at it’s 2 hour and 40 minute run-time (there’s a 3 hour and 25 minute cut out there somewhere) – the car chases and stunts are great but with all these folks involved it should have been a laugh riot. The boy totally enjoyed it and says, “put it on my picks!”.
City Lights (Charles Chaplin 1931) What a charmer! I’d never seen this Chaplin film before. It’s funny, sad and lovely. I like how all three of the big “silent fellas” – Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd – make their protagonist heroes poor and struggling to make it in the world. The end scene in City Lights pushed it over the cliff for me and made me tear up a bit. I don’t think that’s ever happened in a silent film (made 5 years after the introduction of sound!) before. Loved it.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones 1979) Of the three Python movies I’ve always found this one to be the least funny. And that remains true after last night’s viewing. That said, Life of Brian is still quite a hilarious and fun ride. So many good lines. I’m forever saying “I’m not!” in various conversations. And the aliens! Nice touch. The boy liked it but the Holy Grail is still his jam. We haven’t checked out Meaning of Life as of yet though…
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock 1958) Our fourth Hitch film for the class is a wonder of lighting, mood and intensity. That said, it’s also my least favourite of the 4 we’ve watched so far. But that said, it’s still great: Jimmy Stewart and his blistering blue eyes, the lovely Kim Novak in a dual role, that crazy red restaurant, Midge. The amazing first 2/3ds are undone (for me anyways) a bit by the obsession of Scottie to get Judy done up to look like Madeline. But that’s just me. Still a great film!
The Exorcist (William Friedkin 1973) Time to freak the boy out! I saw this when I was around 13 or so and it’s stayed with me all these years. Arguably the scariest movie ever made. I still find it terrifying (and I’m an atheist!) and it still has the power to shock (can’t imagine what it was like to see this at Christmas time in 1973!). The boy wasn’t as freaked out as I’d hoped – he laughed at a few parts before becoming horrified – but he still enjoyed it. On the staff pick wall it goes!
To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan 1962) Still packs a punch to this day and as is still as relevant as when it premiered over 50 years ago. Great acting (Oscars, hello!), writing and cinematography add to the atmosphere of racial oppression, mischievous childhood antics and mysterious neighbors. Actually I had never seen this before (none of us had) and we were all riveted, especially the last 3rd. Recommended for the whole family (older kids) and is a good conversation starter.
The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! (Norman Jewison 1966) We continue our journey down the classic screwball comedy lane (What’s Up Doc and It’s a Mad Mad Mad World) with this fun, madcap tale of a Russian submarine washing up on the shores of a tiny US island on the eastern seaboard during the height of the Cold War. Alan Arkin is amazing as the leader of the Russian crew trying to fix the problem but the show is stolen by Jonathan Winters and his amazing enormous face. A lot of fun and beautifully shot but it rolls in at number 3 of these films for me.
The Odd Couple (Gene Saks 1968) Classic buddy comedy provides some fine laughs due to great chemistry provided by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (my wife says, “wow Walter Matthau was pretty handsome back in the day”. Made us all laugh – to me he’s always looked old). It’s a bit dated for sure – check out the sexual harassment of the waitress scene – but with some witty one-liners from everyone in the cast, it made for a pleasant night at the movies.
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky 1979) I had a feeling that this one would be a hard sell. The boy lost interest before we even started. “What, you don’t want to watch a 2 hour and 41 minute slow-moving epic Russian film?” I asked. The wife slept through some of it. I thought it was brilliant at parts and tedious at others. Beautiful to look at and even at that unwieldy running time, it did not seem that long. I’m still pondering what I watched the next day (not too sure what even happened) but I’m liking it the more I think about it.
M. Hulot’s Holiday (Jacques Tati 1953) I’d never seen a Jacques Tati film before (none of us had) so I thought we’d start with, arguably, his most famous creation. What a strange little French film! The boy really liked the wacky characters and the absurd situations and the repetitive music and the slapstick humour and the odd way Hulot walked and such but it didn’t really work for me. Maybe I’m missing something but so many folks love this guy. Anyways, I’m glad I watched it but I don’t feel compelled to go back for more.