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Bay Weekly’s annual Groundhog’s Movie Review

Burrow down until spring with these classic flicks

Each year, when Bay Weekly’s resident rodent cinephile Chesapeake Chuck comes out of hibernation on Groundhog Day, he presents his movie picks, knowing we’re in for six more weeks of homebound winter. 

This year, Chuck found inspiration while watching the Academy Award nominations and decided to revisit the classics now — before the 2011 Oscars add more films to the pantheon.

What makes a classic?

Chuck selected two authoritative lists: The American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies (http://www.afi.com/100years/movies10.aspx); and Entertainment Weekly’s list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time (http://www.filmsite.org/ew100.html).

Follow Chuck’s advice and burrow into your den with these classics. We’ve also found a few on which our advice is Don’t Bother.

New-to-Me Classics

All but the most cinema-literate among us have missed one or two on the not-to-be missed lists.

Beauty and the Beast

1991 • G • 84 mins.
Directors: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise

Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, Beauty and The Beast could get overplayed. But Disney makes a classic version of the 1756 fairy tale La Belle et la Bete.

The animated movie follows the evolving relationship of a prince turned Beast (Robby Benson) and his prisoner, book-smart Belle (Paige O’Hara), while the servants of the castle — turned into household sundries — help the pair fall in love in hopes of lifting the curse.

The two have a bad start, but the candlestick, clock and teapot help love bloom before the symbolic last petal of an enchanted rose falls, making the curse permanent. A predictable but long-awaited, just-in-time kiss seals the story.

Looks don’t mean everything and love conquers all are clichés as old as the original tale, but both adults and kids willingly believe Disney’s happily-ever-after assurances.

–Aries Matheos

From Here to Eternity

1953 • NR • 118 mins.
Director: Fred Zinnemann

If you watch this movie anticipating the famed love scene in the surf, don’t blink. As scandalous as a cinematic extramarital affair was in the early 1950s, the one-wave, three-second kiss simply seems too short.

This eight Academy Award winner, however, deserves its praise. On a Hawaiian army base in the months before Pearl Harbor, Frank Sinatra brilliantly portrays a wisecracking big-hearted soldier who befriends the new transfer Prewitt, (Montgomery Cliff), an ex-fighter and bugler who refuses to box in the company championship. The company captain condones the cruelty inflicted on Prewitt by the other boxers, and Sergeant Warren (Burt Lancaster) is powerless to stop either the captain — or himself, as he falls in love with the captain’s wife (Deborah Kerr). They’re captives of love, as is Prewitt, smitten with classy call girl Alma Lureen (Donna Reed).

While Warren risks his job for love, Prewitt risks his life for friendship. Loyalty to their true selves guides each character toward the film’s unpredictable ending.

–Dotty Doherty

Midnight Cowboy 

1969 • NC-17 • 113 mins.
Director: John Schlesinger

It’s not completely accurate to say I’ve never seen Midnight Cowboy. I saw some of it — in 1969 at a drive-in with my parents. Minutes into the movie, my mother realized it wasn’t a Western but porn. She ordered my father to disconnect the speaker and get the heck out of Dodge.

My mother was right. Midnight Cowboy is no John Wayne round-’em up. But it is the only X-rated film to win a Best Picture Oscar. 

Jon Voight, playing naïve Texan Joe Buck, heads to New York City planning to hustle his way to riches. Fully decked out in his cowboy duds, pretty boy Buck is easy prey. Enter Hoffman’s Enrico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo a crippled, third-rate conman who tricks Joe out of $20.

Ratso takes Buck under his wing, and so begins their unlikely friendship. As their relationship grows, Ratso’s health deteriorates and Buck is determined to care for his friend.

It’s a film for a sunny day because it leaves me feeling blue and edgy — but appreciative of Hoffman and Voight’s performances.

–Margaret Tearman

The Seventh Seal

1957 • PG • 96 mins. • subtitled
Director: Ingmar Bergman

This black-and-white fantasy from the somber Swedes, titled after a quote from Revelations, addresses humankind’s eternal dilemma: whether ’tis better to live life to the fullest while we can, or repent before it’s too late. It’s serious stuff with, at times, a surprisingly light touch and witty repartee.

Traveling the plague-ravaged countryside with his bawdy squire, a knight struggles with his faith and life’s ontological, eschatalogical and ideological questions while engaging the Grim Reaper in a protracted game of chess. His quest before he dies is to perform one meaningful deed among the priests and pagans, confessors and cuckolds, friends, frauds and self-flagellants he meets along the way.

This is cinema for rumination, visually captivating for its pastoral beauty and medieval realism, and starring Max von Sydow, Sweden’s most watchable cinematic export since Garbo.

–Jane Elkin

Tried and True

How do the classics fare the second — and third — time around?

The Apartment 

1960 • NR • 125 mins.
Director: Billy Wilder

When I moved to New York in 1960, the sole window in the fifth-story walkup I shared with two other women looked out on a similar building where The Apartment had been filmed. We trooped out to see the newly released movie, cheering for elevator operator Shirley MacLaine and corporate worker Jack Lemmon.

Insurance boss Fred MacMurray wants to bed MacLaine. Go-getter Lemmon lends his apartment for trysts, as he has for other company executives and their mistresses. Belly-shaking slapstick ensues before the story turns poignant. Falling for MacLaine, Lemmon finds courage, throws MacMurray out of the apartment, quits his job — and he and she live happily ever after.

Months later, settling into my first professional job at a national news magazine, I encountered a more sophisticated version of The Apartment’s sexual politics.

Watch for parallels to the popular TV series Mad Men, set in the same era. But don’t be too smug. Even though we’ve come a long way, some things never change.

–Bonnie Lefkowitz

Rear Window

1954 • PG • 112
Director: Alfred Hitchcock

“In this building … through his window … he saw something … he never should have seen.” That’s how the 1954 movie trailer aptly introduces one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest thrillers.

The story begins with photojournalist Jeff Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) newly wheelchair-bound and stir crazy with idle time. Despite teasing from socialite girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and visiting nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), Jeff entertains himself by peeping into neighbors’ windows from the rear window of his apartment. At first, his pastime reveals only the mundane, sad secrets of strangers — until he suspects one neighbor (Raymond Burr) of murdering his wife. 

Shot mostly from the vantage point of Jeff’s apartment, Rear Window binds us to our hero’s wheelchair, seeing only what he sees. In true Hitchcock form, we experience his helplessness, his doubt, his frustration and his fear. What a ride! 

–Betsy Kehne

The Sound of Music

1965 • G • 174 mins.
Director: Robert Wise

These are a few of our favorite things: Aspiring nun Maria (Julie Andrews) singing across the Austrian Alps to open the film … Maria’s first days as the new governess to Captain von Trapp’s seven children, as she wins them over with her joy and music… And, finally, the iconic Rogers and Hammerstein songs of this well-loved musical: “Do-Re-Mi,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “Edelweiss.”

Sing along with Maria and the children. You know the words. Rejoice as the captain, engaged to the chilly baroness, softens and falls in love with Maria. Cheer as the family eludes the Nazis with courage, song and assistance from a pair of sneaky nuns. This family classic simply does not get old. My heart wants to sing every song it hears.

–Dotty Doherty

Star Wars

1977 • PG • 121 mins.
Director: George Lucas

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, movies were made without computer-generated images and the wizardry of blue-screen. Real-life humans performed death-defying stunts, and brick, steel and plastic were sacrificed to create special effects.

If you’ve been lost at sea for the past three decades and haven’t seen Star Wars, it’s a classic fairy tale of a story — as I used to tell my 10-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter while trying to get them to watch it for their first time a few years back (now it’s one of their absolute favorites). The kingdom has fallen, and evil pervades the land. A hero must save a princess and restore peace and order — but not before plenty of battles and sacrifices and even a bit of romance.

Having stoked a genre that is now a cinematic juggernaut, Star Wars stands the test of time, even as its sequels and prequels have melted from memory.

–J. Alex Knoll

Creepy Classics

These films are timeless entertainment, but you might want to watch them with the lights on.

Apocalypse Now

1979 • R • 153 mins.
Director: Francis Ford Coppola

A Special Operations officer played by Martin Sheen joins the crazed crew of a navy patrol boat for a river trip through hell in search of the highly decorated Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The colonel vanished into Cambodia where he and his savage army of Montagnard tribesmen are waging their own cruel war. Sheen’s mission is to find Colonel Kurtz and “terminate with extreme prejudice.” 

Along the dream-like way, we are treated to a cast of characters and events that bring home the insanity of the Vietnam War. There is a rampaging tiger, a USO show in the middle of the jungle with Playboy Bunnies, LSD visions of doom, pygmies shooting toy arrows, soldiers surfing in the middle of a battle and incandescent savagery, all backed up by the psychedelic anthems of Hendrix and the Doors. This is the end, my friend.

–Steve Carr

A Clockwork Orange

1971 • X • 136 mins.
Director: Stanley Kubrick

The future is not always a pretty place. Kubrick’s social satire explored the Britain of tomorrow through the troubled teenage eyes of Alex (Malcolm McDowell), as he terrorizes the now-lawless London.

After a typical night of drinking, stealing and raping, Alex unintentionally kills a woman during a robbery and is trapped by his friends with the body until police arrive. Sentenced to prison, Alex volunteers for therapy, where he is forced to watch the ultra-violence he once loved. Now disgusted at anything vulgar, Alex is released to act out his reprogrammed good life. 

The frightening possibility of Big Brother overpowering free will is offset by humorous narration and outrageous sexual décor of the imagined future.

–Aries Matheos

The Fellowship of the Ring

2001 • PG-13 • 178 mins.
Director: Peter Jackson

Young hobbit Frodo Baggins is bequeathed a gold ring that seeks to control its bearer and return to its creator, the evil Lord Sauron, who has dispatched nine ringwaiths, half-human riders, to recover the ring.

Warned by wizard Gandalf, Frodo flees with three friends. They are rescued by human Aragorn, who leads them to the elves’ retreat at Rivendell. There, the bravest of the humans, elves and dwarves vow to protect Frodo, who must cast the ring into the lava of Mount Doom before it overpowers him.

–Sandy Anderson

 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

1956 • NR • 80 mins.
Director: Don Siegel

Some time in the late 1980s, my father sat me down for one of his favorite horror movies. Made in the 1950s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers didn’t feature any gore or hyper-violence. But the story was enough to curl my seven-year-old toes.

Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) discovers that an alien people are hiding pods in his small town. When a townie falls asleep, a pod is hatched, featuring a perfect — but emotionless — replica of the townie. As the good doctor and his sweetheart try to warn the disbelieving populous, they must fight off not only the insensitive aliens but also fatigue. Even closing your eyes for a second spells your doom.

What a great way to start bedtime.

The reason this film remains a classic is the simplicity of the story and the filmmaking. Instead of trying for flashy special effects, the story relies on acting to convey the monstrous changes in people. Screen this film around bedtime and see if McCarthy’s growing hysteria doesn’t have you reaching for the coffee pot.

They’re already here! You’re next! You’re next!

–Diana Beechener

Overlooked Classics

Did the experts miss these? Bay Weekly writers add to the Big Lists.

Babe 

1995 • G • 89 mins. 
Director: Chris Noonan

How this gem could be overlooked boggles the mind. Babe is one of the most charming, creative films I’ve seen. The ensemble cast is fanciful, and it’s a downright shame those barnyard actors weren’t eligible for Oscar nominations. Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) deserved his nomination for best supporting actor. 

Babe is the story of a piglet who learns to herd sheep, but it’s also the story of a crowing duck who figures out that the key to staying alive is to be needed; a flock of sheep who appreciate good manners; a pair of dogs who carry the heavy burden of their heritage; and a quiet farmer who believes that things don’t always have to be normal. 

The story is sweet, but what makes this film so special is looks. Colin Gibson’s superb art direction is enhanced by exceptional set and costume design. The color saturation and the just-a-bit-too-small scale of the set give the film a storybook quality usually achieved through animation. 

If you haven’t seen this movie, or if it’s been a while, treat yourself to another viewing. Look beyond the charm of the animatronics — that really is one cute pig — to see the out-of-this-world scenery. 

–Margaret Tearman

Blade Runner

1982 • R • 117 mins. 
Director: Ridley Scott

In a not-so-distant future — now only eight years away, though still a few decades down the pike when Ridley Scott filmed this sci-fi thriller — androids serve the human race, doing its work, satisfying its needs, even fighting its wars. But every now and then, one of these replicants goes bad, and a force of blade runners hunts it down and dispatches it.

Now, four state-of-the-art warrior replicants have escaped from an off-world colony and returned to earth to find their makers and pry from them the secret of eternal life.

In a world where the sun never shines, Harrison Ford plays Deckard, the blade runner. But as he hunts and destroys them one by one, he begins to question his task.

An apocalyptic film noir, Blade Runner is dense, both visually and thematically, revealing more nuances with each viewing. At the root, it asks of us the age-old question, what does it mean to be human?

–J. Alex Knoll

A Catered Affair

1956 • NR • 92 mins.
Director: Richard Brooks

The setting is the small New York City apartment of taxi driver Tom Hurley (Ernest Borgnine) and his wife Agnes (Bette Davis). Turmoil erupts when Agnes plans to give daughter Jane (Debbie Reynolds) a big wedding with the money Tom’s saving for his taxi medallion.

There’s seething determination in housewife Agnes as she orchestrates the event to give her a taste of the posh life she never had. In the throes of a mid-life crisis and empty-nest syndrome, Agnes pins all hope on The Wedding.

For this story, there’s a perfect ending. And although there’re no evening gowns or steamy cigarette lighting in this Bette Davis flick, it is a love story. The drab setting brings home the reality of Agnes’ situation and on that backdrop makes the final scene even more tender, more exquisite.

–Louise Vest

Young Frankenstein

1974 • PG • 106 mins.
Director: Mel Brooks

Young Frankenstein is the film that redefines American humor; it’s the standard to which a producer might aspire but with slight chance of success. As unadorned humor, I doubt that it will ever be equaled.

Young Frankenstein brims with sight gags, absurdities and hilarious dialogue, as a descendant to Dr. Frankenstein clumsily follows in the good doctor’s footsteps. The movie soars on a manic arc sustained by a stellar cast: Gene Wilder, Teri Garr, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Gene Hackman, Madeline Kahn and Cloris Leachman. These talented stars give us a laugh with every line of dialogue. With Mel Brooks directing, what else would you expect?

Nobody has ever done anything funnier than Young Frankenstein, and I demand, I insist, that this movie take its rightful place on every list of movie classics. 

–Dick Wilson

Classic? I Think Not

These movies made the list, but have they made the grade? We think not.

Jules and Jim

1962 • NR • 105 mins. • subtitled
Director: François Truffaut

It’s so French. So arty, so sexy, so independent, so ooh-la-la, this which-friend-she-loves-more heartbreaker pivoting the dewy, pouty Jeanne Moreau between the pensive blond Austrian Oscar Werner and the lively dark French Henri Serre. 

I first saw it as a young woman about their age. I’ve seen Jules and Jim again, more than once, as I aged — as do the characters in the course of a movie that takes them across World War I. 

Jules and Jim — the title characters — have things to do: weighty subjects to discuss, wars to fight, male friendship to explore, art to make. Catherine has nothing to do but feed, entice and mystify men. Defined as the irrational opposition to their weighty seriousness, she makes herself a master provocateur, baffling and tormenting. To paraphrase another French existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, she was for them, never in herself.

Jules and Jim is a classic of a certain kind of thinking — memorialized exquisitely, tenderly by Truffaut — that drove a generation of women mad. Fine if you like that sort of thing.

–Sandra Olivetti Martin

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

1981 • R • 95 mins.
Director: George Miller

I came here to praise The Road Warrior, not to bury it. But as much fun as Miller’s no-holds-barred action flick is, it’s no classic.

The film follows the continuing travails of Max, a former cop in a post-apocalyptic world, searching for fuel and thriving as a loner. Though the search for gas might strike a chord with modern audiences, the characters are nothing new to cinema. 

Chronic loner and tough guy Max (Mel Gibson) is a stock hero taken from the archives of Clint Eastwood. The evil marauders feel like throwbacks to the savages conquered by Allan Quartermain in King Solomon’s Mines. 

Still, the action holds up, featuring the same gritty, graphic chase and kill scenes that became standard in the 1970s. Only the movie was made in 1981, hardly groundbreaking stuff.

The film may have been one of the greatest movies of 1981 and a Down Under triumph, but it rehashes the characters, themes and gore that Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone perfected decades before. 

–Diana Beechener

Network

1976 • R • 121 mins.
Director: Sidney Lumet

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore! Network is not a classic. One immortal quote, four Oscars and an enduring message do not outshine its soporific soundtrack and tedious romance. This once-shocking film is more funny than sad after 35 years.

The premise was timely, depicting television’s influence over the mindless masses plagued by recession, unemployment, the oil crisis, terrorism, isolationism and corporate corruption. When suicidal news anchor Peter Finch has an on-air breakdown, he is crowned king of a media circus that elevates violence to an art form, spotlighting his primetime ravings as the gospels of a “latter-day prophet.” Mastermind Faye Dunaway is television incarnate, “indifferent to suffering and insensitive to joy,” even as she seduces news icon William Holden, a lone voice decrying her dehumanization. Robert Duvall and Ned Beatty impress in powerful supporting roles.

Good, but no classic.

–Jane Elkin

Titanic

1997 • PG-13 • 194 mins.
Director: James Cameron

If we’re measuring by box office draw, then this disaster movie has earned its place on the classics list. However, I’d like to think that art goes into filmmaking before it earns the title classic. 

The movie tells the tiresome love story of an over-privileged socialite (Kate Winslet) who must marry for money but instead falls for penniless Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). As the star-crossed lovers come together, the ship comes apart, thanks to that iceberg. 

James Cameron’s first effects-over-story blockbuster, Titanic’s cinematic significance is marred by a bosom-heaving drama. 

The movie is peppered with awe-inspiring special effects and poignant scenes of other passengers, but the main love story left me as cold as the waters of the north Atlantic. 

–Diana Beechener