Cleopatra

(USA 1963)

Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra takes me back to high school Latin class, where I saw it the first time. One of the most expensive movies ever made—adjusted for inflation, its budget of $44 million amounts to roughly $336 million today (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056937/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv)—Cleopatra is a straightforward albeit very glamorous and maybe not entirely accurate history lesson. Everything about it, like ancient Rome, is impressive, excessive, and just plain epic. The characters are practically real-life deities, and the actors who play them—Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Richard Burton (Mark Antony), Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar)—are legendary. The sets are huge and overwhelming. Watching Cleopatra is a luscious Technicolor orgy for the eyes.

Is it a good movie? It kept me engaged, at least what I stuck around for (see next paragraph). Taylor injects her wry wit into Cleopatra. It’s fun and weird to see Carroll O’Connor (i.e., Archie Bunker) as a Roman senator. All that said, though, Cleopatra is not exactly entertaining.

Speaking of Latin class, Cleopatra was parsed out over a week, so it didn’t seem as long as it is: over four hours—edited from its original plan of six hours! Even the trailer is long. Fuck. Sadly, it’s too much for a school night. I left during intermission after the first segment—Julius Caesar and Cleopatra—and that is still longer than most movies today. For the record, I’m not counting this in my official tally because I didn’t stay for the whole thing. Et tu?

(Music Box) C+

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival

West Side Story

(USA 1961)

Prologue

I’m generally not into musicals, but West Side Story is an exception. I saw it in high school, and I liked its retro cheese factor. Now that I’ve seen it as an adult, I love it—for quite a few reasons I didn’t appreciate back in high school.

Jet Song

The cast here is flawless. Russ Tamblyn as gang leader Riff—well, he’s a Jet all the way ‘til his last dying day. Richard Beymer brings a sweet and likable innocence to Tony. George Chakiris as Bernardo oozes mystery, menace, and machismo. Susan Oakes plays Anybodys with just the right amount of sexual ambiguity. Somehow, Natalie Wood as Maria, a Puerto Rican, works. And who doesn’t love Rita Moreno as Anita?

America

The story is clever: a modern, urban American adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Manhattan street gangs the Jets and the Sharks instead of Verona houses the Montagues and the Capulets—an S.E. Hinton novel with dancing. Very cool!

Dance at the Gym

Speaking of dancing, yes—gang members snapping their fingers and pulling ballet moves as if they’re in a Michael Jackson video is corny. But it works. Jerome Robbins does breathtaking choreography here. The shots are big, colorful, energetic, and visually stunning. My favorites are the exteriors at the beginning: I feel dizzy, I feel sunny, I feel fizzy and funny and fine. West Side Story is definitely a film for the big screen.

Quintet

Needless to say, the songs are classic. I’ve known them forever—some before I knew West Side Story. Written with Leonard Bernstein, this was Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway debut (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Side_Story). His trademark wit shines through the lyrics and the rhythms. I’ll always think of my friend Frank, who sang songs from West Side Story as he did dishes when we were roommates in college.

The Rumble

Despite its silly corniness—a large part of its charm—West Side Story is dark. It raises a lot of issues still prevalent today: race, delinquency (though we call it “thuggery” today), hate toward “immigrants.” Despite the many light moments here, the dramatic scenes are dramatic; they make you forget, albeit momentarily, the light stuff. The gym dance, the rumble, and the scene where Anita goes to Doc’s store to give a message to Tony are all suspenseful and intense. The final scene in the basketball court is a real tearjerker.

Somewhere

A large part of West Side Story was filmed on a soundstage, but it still nails the look and feel a New York City that doesn’t exist anymore.

Did I miss anything here?

Finale

In 1997, the United States Library of Congress deemed West Side Story “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

(Music Box) A

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival

http://www.westsidestory.com

Lawrence of Arabia

(UK 1962)

Roger Ebert’s comments sum up my experience:

“I’ve noticed that when people remember Lawrence of Arabia, they don’t talk about the details of the plot. They get a certain look in their eye, as if they are remembering the whole experience, and have never quite been able to put it into words.”

(http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-lawrence-of-arabia-1962).

Lawrence of Arabia is an epic if ever there ever was one: a biopic of a bygone era’s famous and handsome man—author T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole)—on a wartime adventure to accomplish an important but impossible task in a rugged, foreign land. His first meeting with Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) does not go well, creating a certain tension that appears to stand in the way. The drama! Lawrence even has an English accent. Uniquely, though, this is a rather low-key epic: most of the set is a vast, sprawling desert, and it’s the little events that produce big results.

Director David Lean infused a major gay subtext. O’Toole is strikingly beautiful; in fact, Noel Coward observed that if O’Toole had been any prettier, the film would have to be called Florence of Arabia (http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-25393557). O’Toole plays Lawrence with a distinct diva component. There’s a hint of something more than an employment arrangement between Lawrence and some servants and an Arab soldier or two. There’s also a weird scene where Lawrence is captured by muscled Turks and brought shirtless before an older, smarmy Bey (José Ferrer) with obvious designs on him; when Lawrence spurns his advances, the Bey has him beaten with whips. Lawrence doesn’t seem too bothered by the beating. The palace looks like a tawdry bathhouse.

What will probably stay with me above all else is F.A. Young’s cinematography, which is arresting and haunting. I definitely want a camel now that I’ve seen this.

In 1991, the United States Library of Congress deemed Lawrence of Arabia “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

(Music Box) A

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

(USA 1963)

A colleague who saw my check-in on Facebook unwittingly but perfectly summed up It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with one innocent question: why would I bother to see “that old person movie”? He’s not off base: crammed with stars most of whom had seen better days even at the time—Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Jimmy Durante, Carl Reiner, Phil Silvers, the Three Stooges—it’s the Cannonball Run of the Great Generation. Silly and fun in a “pull my finger” way, it’s a straightforward slapstick comedy about greed from a director (Stanley Kramer) known for tackling serious subjects. As I watched this, I saw the face my grandfather made when he told a risqué joke—kind of like Three’s Company’s Mr. Roper (Norman Fell), who by the way is also in this.

The story isn’t complicated: on a California desert highway, a group of travelers encounters a dying criminal on the run (Durante) whose last words tip them off to a suitcase of money buried in a park “under a big W.” After a futile attempt to devise a plan to find the money together and share it, a madcap race to get to it erupts—and it’s every man (and woman) for himself.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is over the top in every way: the scenery is huge—perfect for the 70 millimeter restoration I saw—the story is elaborate and overlapping, the cast is immense, and the film is very, very long. It’s interesting to see television stars like Fell, Peter Falk, Jim Backus, Marvin Kaplan, Jonathan Winters, and Don Knotts in minor roles, most before they were famous. Nothing about this film is sophisticated, which is a large part of its corny charm. Overall, the plot and the humor are uneven, going from impressively witty to beyond stupid—particularly the denouement with the fire truck ladder. The dialogue degenerates into yelling and the action becomes monotonous as the film progresses. Despite its shortcomings, though, it kept me engaged almost to the end—no small feat for a film that runs over three hours and has an intermission.

(Music Box) B-

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival

https://www.criterion.com/films/28579-it-s-a-mad-mad-mad-mad-world

madmadmadmadworld.com/

2001: A Space Odyssey

(USA/UK 1968)

I expected a long, slow, laborious, and arty history of mankind extending into the near future—well, near for the late Sixties but already a decade past now—set to Classical music, with lots of scenery from outer space and little or no plot. Think of an elaborate promotional video for space travel—that’s what I anticipated. Fortunately, Stanley Kubrick was more sophisticated than that.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a cool film. After a silly opening segment that involves a group of apes, a monolith, and the birth of tools, the story jumps ahead two million years or so to the 21st Century. In the second segment, Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) shuts down colleages asking questions about a coverup on his way to a space station to investigate an artifact discovered in a pit: it’s a monolith just like the one that sent the aforementioned apes into a frenzy. A third—and the best—segment involves two astronauts (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) on a mission to Jupiter controlled by a computer named HAL. HAL is making mistakes, exhibiting jealousy and vindictiveness, and being generally creepy—a little too human. The final segment is a tripped out time warp for David, one of the aforementioned astronauts. And there’s that monolith again, this time inside a goofy Italian Renaissance inspired bedroom with a glowing dancefloor.

It’s total sci fi, but 2001: A Space Odyssey is clever in ways that allow it to transcend the genre. Kubrick’s vision of the future is not only elegant but remarkably smart and accurate. Humans are still human, but technology is everywhere. Despite the appearance of defunct companies like Pan Am and Howard Johnson’s, his characters use tablets, video conferencing, flat screen TVs, and plastic credit cards. There’s a coffee bar and acronyms for unidentified things called “ATM,” “COM,” and “HIB.” Furnishings and clothing look a little different in a realistic way. The story is open to many interpretations, none of which Kubrick ever debunked. He left a lot of fodder for discussion. I see why it’s on many “best of” lists.

I saw a restored version that included an overture and an intermission. The latter broke up what probably would’ve verged on too long for me.

In 1991, the United States Library of Congress deemed 2001: A Space Odyssey “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

(Music Box) A

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival

http://www.filmsite.org/twot.html

Vertigo

(USA 1958)

I’m probably in the minority when I say that I found Vertigo stupid. The story, complicated and intricate as it is, takes a long time to get going; once it does, it’s so fanciful that it’s not believable. The movie is longer than it needs to be. Plus, the ending—I can only assume it’s supposed to be dramatic and impactful—comes off as silly; in fact, Aaron and I turned to each other at the same time and rolled our eyes.

All of this said, it doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the film. I did, actually—very much. There’s a lot to like here.

James Stewart is Scottie Ferguson, a cop forced to sit on the sidelines after a bout with vertigo while chasing a criminal across a bunch of rooftops nearly kills him. A wealthy former classmate, Galvin Elster (Tom Helmore), seeks him out and convinces him to act as a personal investigator; it seems Galvin’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), is possessed by her dead Mexican grandmother. She’s hot (even if she’s not one bit Mexican), and Scottie falls for her. Hard. It’s not long before he’s personally involved, wandering through northern California in her car with her. She opens up to him, he takes the bait, and he loses her. Or so it appears.

Vertigo is certainly a beautiful looking film. The interior sets are gorgeous. The exterior shots of late 1950s San Francisco are stunning, and considering how the city would change a decade later makes them all the more precious. The wardrobe choices are classic yet snappy. The restored version I saw was crisp and vivd. An ominous yet mesmerizing score by Bernard Herrmann takes Vertigo to an even higher place—no pun intended.

Being an Alfred Hitchcock film, there’s more to Vertigo than meets the eye. Symbolism is all over: tunnels, flowers, birds, towers, stairs, heights, the color green. It’s not hard to find articles, scholarly and not, that analyze the many themes here: desire, death, reality, appearances, power, the past, the damsel in distress. All this aside, I can sum up the message I got out of Vertigo in five words: “don’t think with your dick.” The interactions between Scotty and both Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) and Madeleine are sexually charged and tinged with danger. Vertigo is hypnotic, mysterious, psychological, and suspenseful even if it’s not exactly what I would call a thriller.

It takes some work to get through, but Vertigo ultimately proves to be a treat despite its flaws. After almost 60 years, it’s still breathtaking and weird. It’s easy to see why at least one so-called authority named it “the greatest film of all time” (http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-19078948). Hitchcock influenced many, but Vertigo immediately called to my mind David Lynch; I see traces of it throughout his work, and its influence on him specifically is undeniable.

In 1989, the United States Library of Congress deemed Vertigo “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

(Music Box) A-

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival