Sunday, April 29, 2012

My All Time Favorite Movie Scenes

The following is actually a copy of my most popular post ever on before I started this blog dedicated to movie and television.   If you have already read, I apologize but enjoy it if you haven't.  Thanks for reading!
While I think Hollywood has been churning out a whole lot of crap over the past two or three years, I haven’t always believed that was true.  I have been a huge fan of the movies since I first started going to theaters on a regular basis in the early 1980s.  Before having a child, and before other life activities curtailed the opportunities, I went to the movies almost every single weekend, sometimes 2 or 3 times a weekend.  I know, that is a lot of popcorn.  Let’s just say I love movies.  Most of the movies on the list are since 1980.  These are the movies I am most familiar with.  I am sure there are many great moments I have left off.  As it is, I have already extended the list from 10 to 15 because I couldn’t narrow it down.

When someone makes a list of their favorite anything, it is purely subjective.  This list is no different.  In compiling a list of my favorite movie moments, I did not consider the greatness of the movies themselves.  Some of the scenes on this list are long, some are short.  Some are the climatic scenes, some aren’t.  Some are based on the emotions they stirred up in me, and some are just brilliantly conceived and/or executed.  In all cases, I feel the movie makers hit on just the right formula to capture their audiences.

A couple more notes before I get to the list.  I must give a general spoiler alert.  If you haven’t seen any particular film, you may want to just skip that entry and move on to the next one, and let it be enough that the movie was on the list.  In some cases, in due course of explaining my reasons for including a movie, I may reveal some key plot information.  If I ruin anything for anyone, I apologize beforehand.  Also, the names I have given for the scenes are unofficial.  I have tagged them as I have for my own purposes.  Here goes:

15. Brian’s Song – “Brian Dies” – This is the first tear jerker I ever remember seeing.  It requires very little explanation as to why it is on my list.  If the life and death of Brian Piccolo doesn’t bring you to tears, you have to question your own humanity.

14. Saving Private Ryan – “D-Day” – The opening sequence of this terrific World War II film is absolutely brilliant.  It takes a very strong stomach to watch it because it is brutal and graphic, gruesome and realistic.  I can’t imagine any other film capturing the horror of the Allied landing in Normandy any better.  It may portray as much realism as can be watched by the average person but it was filmed with the respect necessary to honor those who fell on those bloody beaches that day.

13. Ferris Buehler’s Day Off – “Twist and Shout” – This is by far the most frivolous entry on my list and I make no apologies.  Who had more fun than Ferris Buehler and when did he have more fun than when he thrust himself onto a parade float to karaoke “Danke Shoen” and “Twist and Shout”?  The crowd choreography is a little silly but that's part of the fun of this sweet scene.  Who didn’t want to sing along with Ferris in this comedy classic?

12. A Few Good Men – “You Can’t Handle the Truth” – With the long history of parodies of this scene, you only need to go back and watch this powerful scene again to appreciate the tension and drama of this terrific movie.  It is maybe Jack Nicholson’s most famous scene as his arrogant Colonel Jessup explodes under Tom Cruise’s Lieutenant Kaffee pressuring questions in this taunt military courtroom drama.   Kaffee has little courtroom experience, little confidence, and little respect.  Jessup really loathes Kaffee but the lawyer prods the volatile colonel into a very dramatic confession.  This movie has a terrific cast and is an underrated film.  Keep an eye on Wolfgang Bodison as Lance Corporal Dawson.  Bodison was unknown at the time but gives an awesome performance.

11. The Cowboys – “The Duke is Dead?” – The best John Wayne westerns were always those that got away from the cookie cutter formulas.  This movie qualifies.  Wayne seldom died in his films, you know, because he was the Duke.  In this western, Wayne hits the trail to take a herd of cattle to market, with only teens and pre-teens as cowhands.  Far fetched premise you say?  It is but it doesn’t matter.  Wayne pushes and prods the youngsters kicking and screaming into manhood and as the end of the trail approaches, cattle rustlers, led by a charmingly evil Bruce Dern, attack the youngsters and their bovine charges.  The young cowherds fight off the bad guys but lose their fearless leader.  It was such a shock because the Duke just doesn’t go out like that.   It is one of my favorite John Wayne movies and its unexpected twist provides reason enough.

10. Good Will Hunting – “No Goodbye” – I think the subtle but touching ending to this movie is ultimately the reason why it won Damon and Affleck the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  It was fore shadowed earlier in the film when Affleck’s Chuckie quietly rails on Damon’s Will for not taking advantage of his opportunities.  Chuckie tells Will he would love to show up at Will’s house some morning to pick him up for work and just find Will gone.  No goodbyes.  In the end, Will does just that, to the wry satisfaction of his best buddy.  I love this movie and this ending is the whip cream and cherry on top. 

9. The Lord of the Rings:  The Two Towers – “The Battle for Helm’s Deep” – This is my favorite battle scene of all time.  I don’t care it was mostly CGI.  Back then, this type of special effects was still relatively new and wasn’t being overused by every hack film maker.  Peter Jackson is a genius and nowhere is it more obvious in this incredibly detailed battle.  It is climatic scene in the second installment in this legendary trilogy and Jackson is patient with it, drawing out beautifully.  Big fan of the books, the films, and this scene.

8. Big – “Chopsticks” – Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia playing “Chopsticks” with their feet on a giant keyboard on the floor of a toy store – just imagine.  A terrific scene in a movie that showed off Hanks at his sweetest and most innocent as a young teen trapped in the body of an adult.  Sometimes we forget, because of all of his dramatic work over the past twenty years, Hanks goofy, comedic beginnings.  This is the best of Hanks’ pre-Forrest Gump efforts and well worth a revisit.

7. Million Dollar Baby – “Mo Cuishle” – Make sure the tissue box is close at hand for this deathbed scene.  Maggie Fitzgerald (played by the gutsy Hilary Swank) convinces hardened trainer, Frankie (Clint Eastwood), to become her boxing mentor.  The always brilliant Morgan Freeman rounds out this top notch cast.  The character development is steady and patient and it pays off.  Fitzgerald works her way into Frankie’s heart, leading to the tragic, soul wrenching key scene.  No exaggeration – I cried for several minutes after the film ended.  It is a scene I will never forget.

6. Glory – “The Whipping” – This is the Civil War movie that made Denzel Washington a star and the scene that thrust him into super stardom.  Who will ever forget Private Trip stoically, yet rebelliously, glaring over his shoulder as he is whipped on order of Matthew Brodrick’s Colonel Robert Gould Shaw for an army indiscretion?  The sight of Trip’s old scars on his back, from the way of life from which he escaped and was fighting against, is gut wrenching.  The irony of the punishment commanded by Colonel Shaw is not subtle but Washington and Broderick handle the scene beautifully.  Morgan Freeman, Adrian Braugher, and Cary Elwes add their considerable talents to this terrific film about the 54th Massachusetts, the first black regiment recruited in the north during the Civil War. 

5. Apocalypse Now – “I Love the Smell of Napalm” – Robert Duvall’s brief, yet memorable, scene is incredible.  Blaring Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries” from speakers mounted on helicopters, Duvall’s not quite sane Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore leads an aerial attack on a riverside Vietnamese village.  After the attack, Kilgore strides across a smoldering, body strewn battleground, oblivious to any danger.  He squats, waxing philosophically.  He utters the famous, and much parodied line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.  It smells like…victory.”  In the course of a film over two and a half hours long, this brief appearance garnered Duvall a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and it is most deserving.  Duvall played the not-quite-right Kilgore just right.

4. The Empire Strikes Back – “I Am Your Father” – I have always felt this is the most overrated of the six-episode Stars Wars saga.  Most people think I’m crazy because it is also the most favored.  Sit down and watch it sometime.  The story line is barely advanced.  If it weren’t for one of the biggest, if not the biggest, reveals in Hollywood history, I wonder if it would still be the favorite of so many.  Villainous Darth Vadar’s shocking revelation that he is hero Luke Skywater’s father saves this film.  It has nearly nonstop action and fun but until this incredible scene unfolds, the plot nearly fails.  I’m sure George Lucas set it up that way.  I remember, as a youth, when I first watched the movie, I was like, “No way!” upon seeing this cinematic shocker.

3. Dead Poet’s Society – “Captain, My Captain” – This is my favorite Robin Williams movie.  I know, it is sappy and slow but the last half hour is dramatic and terrific.  When Williams’ John Keating is made the scapegoat for a tragedy that is in no way his fault and he forced to resign his teaching position at a private school, shy, reserved student Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) pays homage to his fallen mentor.  In a touching reference to an earlier scene in which Keating pushes Anderson to emerge from his shell, Anderson strides to the top of his desk to honor his teacher by quoting Walt Whitman.  His “Captain, my captain” stops Keating at the door.  Classmates join Anderson on their desktops, repeating the phrase as the school dean tries to restrain them.  I have watched this movie a dozen times.  I know what is coming.  I tear up in anticipation of the upcoming moment every time.  I’m so attached to this scene, my wife knew it was going to be included on this list.

2. A Time To Kill – “Now Imagine…” – This is a great adaptation of John Grisham’s first, and best, novel.  Matthew McConaughey’s Jake Brigance is hired to defend Carl Lee Haley (Samuel L. Jackson), who, in front of a dozen witnesses, killed the two white men who raped and beat his young daughter.  During the public murder, Haley also shoots and cripples a police officer by accident.  The facts of the case are undisputed, yet Haley pleads with Brigance to get him off.  Set in Mississippi, in a volatile area where the Ku Klux Klan is still active, Brigance must convince a jury of Haley’s white “peers” that a black man was justified in killing two white men in cold blood.  Brigance’s closing argument, which was even more dramatic on film than in print, is shocking, breathtaking, and right on.  This all star cast includes Kevin Spacey, Sandra Bullock, both Sutherlands, Chris Cooper, Oliver Platt, Brenda Fricker, Charles S. Dutton, and Ashley Judd.  I love this movie and I love this powerful scene.  Jackson has the best moment of the movie as he realizes what Brigance’s argument is.  Now that is how an actor shows surprise!

1. The Godfather, Part I – “Do You Renounce Satan” – This scene is so powerful and so perfect.  What a way to end one of the greatest movies ever made.  As Michael Corleone stands in a Catholic church, before an alter, before his God, and swears to renounce Satan, his minions are taking out his enemies throughout New York City.  The scene bounces back and forth from the church, where his family has gathered for his son’s baptism, to the various bloodbaths.  Corleone swears another oath and another rival criminal dies.  The music hauntingly crescendos as the scene builds and builds as more oaths are sworn and more people die.  It is brilliant in all of its violent glory.  I don’t know if another scene will ever be shot to match this one’s absolute brilliance and power. 

I hope everyone enjoys reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.  Feel free to blast away at my choices and feel free to submit your own in the comment section.  Thanks for staying with me.  I know it’s a long one.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Magic City

Magic City (Fridays, 9pm Eastern, Starz)

A beautiful locale, an exciting time, and a fascinating theme should all add up to a very intriguing television program.  Unfortunately, Magic City comes up just a bit short on the intrigue and has an I-think-I’ve-seen-this-before vibe.

This Starz effort looks stunning in its 1959 Miami setting.  The story revolves around Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), owner and proprietor of a new beach front luxury hotel.  Evans’ biggest problem is that to get his hotel built, he had to take on a partner, namely Ben “The Butcher” Diamond (Danny Huston).  With a nickname like The Butcher, are there any guesses on what kind of guy Diamond is?  You got it – a mobster.

In the background, Cuba is falling to a young rebel leader named Fidel Castro.  Diamond’s Cuban business interests, as was all of the mafia’s Cuban interests, are under duress.  Diamond has moved to Miami, looking for a way to cover his expected losses, hence his desire for a bigger piece of Evans’ hotel.  Diamond does not stray far from the gangster stereotype – he is a violent, entitled killer. 

Although Huston’s portrayal of Diamond is chilling and realistic, the character and storyline are unimaginative, right down to the union leader anchored to the bottom of a quarry lake.  Huston dominates each scene he is in.  I just wish he had better material to work with.

Morgan is fine in the lead role and is believable but again, I feel he was little meat to gnaw on.  He saunters through his scene in a nice suit and the iconic fifties cigarette smoldering between his lips.  Evan rushes around trying to figure out a way to escape Diamond’s domineering and threatening shadow.  Evans has two grown sons and these characters have yet to find footing with any interesting storylines.  Evans does have a sexy, younger wife played by Bond girl, Olga Kurylenko.  Just like his sons, Kurylenko’s Vera has made no established contribution as yet.

Magic City could certainly improve as more episodes unfold.  The writing has got to improve if this show has even a chance of success.  Starz is a premium cable movie network, so maybe it can give the show a little more rope in hope of getting better.  They need to take advantage of the characters already in place and the built-in storylines.  The Mafia is a big part of this time and place but I would like to see more depth in the writing here.  Please give us more than the surface story and superficial characters.  The idea has merit but the execution has been poor thus far.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

American Reunion

Aaahhh, the nostalgia.  Sometimes we connect with characters and movies for no apparent reason.  That was the case in the late 1990’s with the American Pie movies.  They were filled with crude language and images that were shocking.  They were also loaded with touching, familiar characters and situations.  Those images were as funny as they were shocking and these movies clicked with teens of the day and with no-so-teens like me.  I’ve always thought those movies channeled the vulgar ghost of John Hughes (even though Hughes still lived when the first 3 films were made).

American Reunion brought nothing new to the big screen, yet it didn’t disappoint.  I think many of us wanted to know if Jim and Michelle were still together.  We wanted to know if Stifler was still a childish jerk.  We wanted to know if Finch still had a thing for Stifler’s mom.  We all wanted to see Jim’s dad again.  It didn’t really matter what the situation would be.  We just wanted to see our old favorites again.  Reunion came through.

The movie was filled with the expected crazy, lewd hijinks that were the calling card of the original trilogy.  I wondered if I would still find this stuff as funny as I did more than a decade ago.  I don’t know what it says about me, but I did.  And judging by the loud laughter from the audience in the theater, so did everyone else.  It didn’t even matter that we could see some of the scenes unfolding before the movie actually got there.  The characters, especially Jim, take innocent situations and have them fall apart to their most base aspects in quick fashion. 

This film, just as in the originals, went deeper than the cheap, lewd and crude funny business.  All of these pictures could have easily been nothing more than boorish and course yet they didn’t.  There was real depth to the characters and that is why we connected with them.  We liked them, and behind the vulgarity, there were real issues of insecurity and the pathos of modern teenagers.  American Reunion followed the same pattern, revealing familiar uncertainties about marriage and parenthood.  Sometimes relationships can become comfortable but also lack the excitement that sparked it in the first place.  We as adults often look back at the decisions of our life and question our decisions.  This film puts our beloved characters in the same kind of situations and reveals the growth we have all experienced in life.

I don’t want to suggest that this movie is golden statuette worthy.  Of course it isn’t.  It follows the original formula too much.  It is funny and crude but it is also touching and familiar.  If you liked the first 3 movies then you are going to enjoy seeing these characters ten years later.  If you didn’t like the originals, don’t bother with this one either.  The acting is mediocre at best, except for maybe Jason Biggs (Jim), Eugene Levy (Jim’s dad), and Sean William Scott (hilarious as Stifler), but that really isn’t the point.  It is about the imperfections of friendship and life.  Of course, this is not a movie for children in any way, shape, or form.  Enjoy this movie for what it is and be happy catching up with old favorites.  It was good to see them again.

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Game of Thrones


Over the years, many books have been made into movies.  Most pale in comparison because the movie versions lack the details that provide most of the meat in the literary form.  The film maker is forces to pick choose what details and even whole scenes are important enough for their picture.  Often, these inevitable cuts end up watering down the book as a whole.  Figure in the often inexplicable changes the film maker decides to go with for whatever purpose, and the movie is sometimes barely recognizable in comparison.

There are film makers who work very hard to remain as true to the books as possible.  The biggest hurdle to this is that it is very difficult to trim an 800-page book into two or three hours.  Typically, one page of a screenplay roughly equals one minute of film.  The math is simple; there is too much content that has to be eliminated.  That is why the movie is seldom better the book.

What would be the result if a film maker had ten hours to work with?  This is an intriguing question and one that HBO and creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss had an answer for.  The result is brilliant.  Benioff and Weiss took a best selling fantasy classic and made it into an HBO series.

The book A Game of Thrones is actually the first book in an expected 7-volume fantasy series called A Song of Fire and Ice by George R. R. Martin, but the creators wisely ditched the unwieldy series name and went with the more popular designation, Game of Thrones.  Benioff and Weiss decided to make that first book into 10 season one episodes.  Armed with the luxury of time, they produced a visually stunning, brilliantly filmed, superbly acted, true-to- the-book masterpiece. 

The HBO series took its time telling this rich story of political intrigue, friendships, betrayals, villains, heroes, sex, and violence in stunning detail.  The television version follows the book faithfully, with only a few scenes invented.  Most of these are not so much invented as maybe extended or expanded.  Most are to highlight a fact merely hinted at in the book.  As with most popular science fiction or fantasy books, this series has its far share of “fanboys” who jump all over any details changed from the books.  I  imagine that even the most rabid fanboys have to be thrilled with this series. 

The first season was incredible and I have watched it a couple of times already.  I have been impatiently anticipating the second season, based on the second book Clash of Kings, which picks up right where the first book and season leave off.  The second book is longer and even more textured, layered, and detailed than the first, with more battles and more intrigue than the first book.  The scope is wider and more intense as well.  The creators have their work cut out for them to use their editing power as precisely as a surgeon wielding a scalpel.  At this point, I have complete trust they will get it right as they show as much love and dedication to the books as Peter Jackson did with The Lord of the Rings.

Game of Thrones is filled with knights and kings, battles and wars, sibling rivalry, lies and truths, life and death, and dragons.  These are all key ingredients to the classic fantasy genre and this is one of the best written series of all time.  George R.R. Martin is a brilliant author whose imagination is without limits.  His eye for detail is precise and there are never dull or slow parts of his books.  The one annoying flaw Martin has is that he is an unforgivably slow writer.  It took him 11 years to write the 3rd and 4th books, and they take place simultaneously and cover a myriad of characters and places.  While I sincerely hope HBO is able to continue this undoubtedly expensive project through to the end, I harbor major doubts that Martin can keep up.  I am hoping that the production of the show will quicken his writing.

If you get HBO, the series is must viewing.  If you don’t, at some point, buy the DVD set.  It is worth the money.  It has everything anyone could want in entertainment – action, drama, horror, comedy, sex, blood – on top of perfect acting, writing, and production.  As can be expected of an HBO series, it is not for children and would carry an R rating in the theater.  As a fan of the books, I couldn’t be happier with the results of the program.  Season two started just this last week and I am eager for the next episode.  You can catch up On Demand.  This is must watch TV if ever there was such a thing.

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