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Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Tribute to Gene Kelly

Today, I am posting something a little different.  Still counting movies for the countdown, but today is a tribute to a man who has had a profound influence on my life: Gene Kelly.

Gene and I began our relationship when I was around 2 or 3, when I first watched Singin’ in the Rain.  At the time, it was just a flash of Technicolor fun, but as I grew older, I developed an appreciation for the film, and for Gene’s brilliance. 

For a while, I would only watch musicals from the Arthur Freed Unit with Gene Kelly or Judy Garland.  I adored the three movies they made together.  I only wish they’d made more.

I remember clearly the day Gene Kelly died.  I was getting out of rehearsal for the winter play at Hanover High School.  I had the ACT exam the next day.  As I got in the car, my sister informed me of Gene Kelly’s passing.  Tears filled my eyes.  

After the ACT the next day, my sister and I talked about his movies, and in his honor, we watched An American in Paris.  I spent the next week watching all of the movies we owned starring him.  The following is a list of some of my favorites, in no particular order (aside from Singin’, because I already did an entire post about that one):

#326: For Me and my Gal (1942).  This was Gene’s first movie, and he starred alongside film veteran Judy Garland.  She held his hand and guided him through the film making process, a favor he would later return to her.  Gene and Judy always had insane chemistry together, apparent from the get-go.  The movie was made right around the time WWII was in full swing, but is about WWI.  Gene plays a Vaudeville actor who partners up with Judy, with big dreams of playing The Palace.  He also freaks out about being drafted and purposefully ruins his hand to avoid going to war.  This movie has a lot of heart and fun, but also has a darker side to it.  Gene’s performance is a wee rough around the edges, but still great to watch.

#325: Take me out to the Ballgame (1949).  This was the second time Kelly was paired with Frank Sinatra (the first being Anchors Aweigh, which is ok, and famous for the dance sequence with the animated mouse, Jerry, but I like this one better).  Kelly plays a hotshot baseball player, who is a Vaudeville performer in the off season.  Sinatra is one of his teammates, along with Jules Munshin.  Kelly is a serious playboy, complete with a little black book.  The boys find out that the club owner has died and left the club to his relative, K.C. Higgins, who they assume, is a little know-nothing dude.  Turns out, K.C. is a know-everything chick, played by the amazingly sexy Esther Williams.  Of course, they fall in love.  This is a fun little flick, which was actually Kelly’s idea to begin with.  Well done, Gene.

#324: Thousands Cheer (1943).  One of the lesser known movies, also an early Kelly film.  This movie teams Kelly up with Kathryn Grayson.  Kelly plays an aerialist (read: trapeze artist) who has been grounded via the draft.  He wants to be a pilot, but is forced to be a foot soldier.  Grayson is the head Officer’s daughter, and love interest.  There’s this weird thing in the middle of the movie in which MGM hauls out its current array of stars to put on a USO-type show, which while entertaining, completely screws with the flow of the film.  I tend to fast-forward through a lot of it, but it’s worth watching if you’ve never seen it.  Aside from that, it is actually quite charming.

#323: On the Town (1949).  The third, and final, teaming of Kelly and Sinatra, plus Munshin.  An adaptation of the Comden and Green Broadway musical, it follows three sailors in New York City on 24-hour leave.  Hijinks and romance!  Also featuring the ever witty Betty Garrett, the always lovely Vera-Ellen, and the always spectacularly saucy Ann Miller.  At Kelly’s request, they shot much of this film on location, virtually unheard of for any movies, let alone musicals.  It was a smart move, though – the city itself plays a nice role in the film. 

#322: An American in Paris (1951).  Most people think of tap or modern dance when they think of Gene Kelly.  But what a lot of people don’t know is that Gene’s true dance love was ballet.  This movie was his love letter to ballet.  There is only one Featuring the music of the Gershwin Brothers, stunning choreography, and a lot of beautiful artwork, this is a must-see for any and all musical lovers. 

#321: Marjorie Morningstar (1958).  This is one of the rare non-musical, dramatic films Gene Kelly starred in.  Also starring Natalie Wood as his love interest (just go with it) and Ed Wynn.  He plays a guy who is a big fish in a small performing arts camp pond, who does not have the chops to make it as a serious, professional playwrite/composer.  It’s a decent movie, but the acting is, at times, very over the top – not just Gene’s, but Natalie’s as well.  The book is a great read, as well, check it out!

#320: Inherit the Wind (1960).  Gene plays the cynical journalist E.K. Hornbeck, based on journalist H.L. Menkin.  This is where he shines in a more dramatic role.  The movie is stunning and relevant today, and beautifully acted. 

#319: The Pirate (1948).  This was the second paring with Judy Garland, and is often overlooked, but stunning and smart.  Kelly performs with the Nicholas Brothers at the end of the movie to the Cole Porter song “Be a Clown”, showing off his tumbling skills.  This really is a unique movie, so you should check it out at least once.

#318: Summer Stock (1950).  This was not only his final film with Judy Garland, but it was her last film at MGM, and who better to work with than Gene?  Just as she took his hand and guided and supported him through his first movie, he did the same for her.  The two of them are insanely magnetic together, and the movie is a lot of fun.  It’s like the old “Let’s put on a show!” movies that Judy used to do with Mickey Rooney back in the day.  Definitely a must-see.

Gene Kelly was my first crush, an artist to look up to and emulate, and the reason I moved to Pittsburgh, PA, where I had the most amazing 3 ½ years of my young adulthood.  The influence he had on dance and the perception of male dancers is profound.  He was a tremendous talent, fiercely loyal, and stood by his convictions until his last days.  Happy 100th Birthday, Gene Kelly.  You are my lucky star.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Strange Brew

#327: Strange Brew (1983).  A couple of days ago, I went out for a drive and randomly wound up in Canada.  You can read about it here.  Anyhoo, after enjoying some coffee and a donut at Tim Horton’s (but sadly, no beer while I was up there – it was late and I had a long drive), I felt the urge to watch this little classic starring my boyfriend actor/comedian Rick Moranis and fellow Canadian SCTV comedian Dave Thomas.  Now, I was totally in the wrong region of Canada, but whatever. 

The Players:

Doug Mackenzie: Played by Dave Thomas.  He likes beer, hockey, donuts and back bacon.  Not too bright.

Bob Mackenzie: Played by Rick Moranis.  He likes beer, hockey, donuts, and back bacon.  Not too bright.

Bewmaster Smith: Played by Max von Sydow.  He owns/runs the local brewery.  Also?  Evil.

Claude Elsinore: Played by Paul Dooley.  He has something to do with the brewery.

Pam Elsinore: Played by Lynne Griffin.  She is the heir to the brewery, our “damsel in distress”. 

The Rundown:

OK, y’all, really?  This is such a bizarre little movie.  It’s pretty much an extended SCTV Mackenzie Brothers skit, with some fantasy thrown in.  Some consider it to be the prelude to Wayne’s World, which I totally see.  Instead of “Party on!”  it’s “Good Day, eh!” 

OK, the story is basically that Bob and Doug drink/break the last of their dad’s beer bottles, and have to figure out how to get more without any money.  So, they attempt this:

and fail.  They’re told to go to the brewery.  So, they go, wind up getting jobs there, and discover that something’s not quite right.  The brewery is haunted, there’s a random hockey team dressed like storm troopers, and the beer has some sort of mind control substance in it.  So, the Mackenzie Brothers have to save the day!  Which they do. 

The end.  Really.  There’s a lot of random shit in this movie, but it’s also slightly intelligent, in that it borrows from Hamlet in various ways.  But mostly, it’s just Bob and Doug being… Bob and Doug.  I recommend you check out some of the videos from the SCTV skits, they are a hoot!  You should also check out this movie if you like movies like Wayne’s World or Super Troopers.  This is the Grandaddy of them all, and actually a fun little bit of nonsense. 

That’s a Wrap!  Up next: Some more baseball!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Field of Dreams

I’M BACK!  After a month off, I finally got a chance to relax my brain a little, and got my movie groove back.  So, here goes!

#328: Field of Dreams (1989).  Back in the late 1990s/early 2000s, I worked at a “music, movies and more” store called Coconuts.  One day, I was talking about this movie with a co-worker, and he commented that Kevin Costner should only make baseball-themed movies, because they truly are his best.  Tin Cup was ok, too, which was about golf.  So, Kevin Costner should only make leisure-sports movies.  It is a fact. 

Field of Dreams is probably the best thing he’s done, in my opinion.  I do believe that Costner is an actor of somewhat limited range, and in this movie he’s mostly just along for the crazy cosmic ride that the baseball gods are taking him on.  And what a ride.  Being a casual baseball fan, I like this movie.  Being a fan of fantastical, supernatural-themed stories with a little schmaltz and a lot of heart, I love this movie.  Also, the book, “Shoeless” Joe, by W.P. Kinsella is wonderful.  Read it.  Go.  Now.  Buy it or download it or something, I can wait…

Back?  OK.  Here goes.

The Players:

Ray Kinsella: Played by Kevin Costner.  Ray is a guy who has lived a little, but never done anything crazy in his whole life.  Like I said, he’s just along for the ride, and finds a little of himself, and what he’s been looking for, along the way.  He loves his wife, daughter, and baseball.

Annie Kinsella: Played by Amy Madigan.  Loyal readers may remember her from Streets of Fire.  She is much, much better here.  She knows that what Ray is doing is absolutely nuts, and is from time to time the voice of financial reason, but she is completely supportive of Ray.

Karen Kinsella: Played by a little Gaby Hoffman.  One of the few times I didn’t find her annoying as a kid.  Karen is, for the most part, “there”, but is important at the end of the movie.

“Shoeless” Joe Jackson: Played by Ray Liotta.  The baseball field that Ray builds is, he thinks, for “Shoeless” Joe.  “Shoeless” Joe was a real baseball player who was a member of the Chicago “Black Sox”, a group of White Sox players who took money to throw the 1919 World Series.  Whether or not “Shoeless” Joe was really in on the deal, or just signed because everyone else did is still up for debate, but he was permanently suspended from playing professional baseball. 

Mark: Played by Timothy Busfield.  Mark is Annie’s brother, and is pushing Ray to sell his farm, especially after he plows up half of it and builds his baseball field.  He can’t see the magical baseball players on the field.

Terence Mann: Played by James Earl Jones.  In the book, this character is J.D. Sallinger, but was changed for the film.  Still a recluse writer, he was also an activist in the 1960s.  He gets sort of hijacked into Ray’s journey, but enjoys the ride.

Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham: Played by the great Burt Lancaster.  He is a straight-up ghost that Ray encounters in Minnesota.  A former baseball player who only got to play one game, and never got to bat.  He went to school and became a small-town Doctor. 

Archie Graham: Played by Frank Whaley.  He is the younger self of Doc. Graham, who finally gets to live out his dream of going up against a major league pitcher.

So, if you are not a big baseball fan, it doesn’t matter.  Watch this movie.  Seriously.  This is not a movie about baseball, but rather about dreams, the father/son relationship, second chances, all played out in front of the backdrop of baseball.  You don’t have to know who the players are (but you might recognize some of the names if you are a baseball fan, or a history buff, or both), all you have to know is they have found a haven for baseball.  OK, I’m getting a little ahead of myself…

Ray is a farmer in Iowa, albeit a slightly reluctant one.  He’s never really done anything out of the realm of normalcy, until one day when he’s in his corn field.  He hears the words “If you build it, he will come” whispered on the wind.  An image flashes before him of a baseball field where is corn currently resides.  He sees “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.  Not entirely sure what this means, he talks about it with his wife.  Afraid he’s going to turn into his father, who never did anything of interest, and died kind of pitiful (in Ray’s eyes), Ray decides to build the baseball field.  After it’s built, it just sort of sits there.  While discussing their dwindling finances, Karen calls to her dad – there’s a man in their baseball field.

Why, it’s “Shoeless” Joe Jackson!  They talk baseball, the field, and whatnot.  Suddenly, a group of players (the Chicago “Black Sox”) are playing on his field.  There’s trouble with the bank, but otherwise, things are good.  Until he hears the words “ease his pain” whispered.  Ease whose pain?

Thanks to a censorship meeting in which a book by author Terence Mann is being discussed, Ray gets the crazy idea that he is supposed to ease Terence Mann’s pain.  Oooookaaaay… after a little research, he finds a story in which Mann used Ray’s father’s name in a story, and he once gave an interview about baseball.  Annie and Ray had the same dream about Ray and Terence at a baseball game at Fenway Park.  So, money be damned, it’s off to Boston!

Enter the awesomeness that is James Earl Jones.  There is a lot of humor in the following scene where Ray convinces Terence to go to the baseball game with him.  While there, Ray hears “go the distance”, and sees some stats about a rookie named Archie “Moonlight” Graham.  He has to go to Minnesota.  Terence hears the same thing, and decides to go along for the ride. 

They get to Minnesota and discover that Archie Graham became a Doctor, and died a while ago.  He was a beloved figure in his community, making sure that children got the milk and care they needed, giving them tickets to baseball games, etc.  Not sure what to do with this information, Terence and Ray head back to the hotel.

Terence has to call his father, because his father thinks he’s been kidnapped or is dead or something.  Ray leaves him for privacy, and he winds up on Main Street.  It is the early 1970s.  An old man walks by, and Ray knows exactly who he is.  He takes a walk at night with “Moonlight” Graham, and hears about his short-lived baseball career.  They wind up at his office, and Ray offers to take Doc. Graham with him to Iowa.  He declines, saying it’s past his time; his life is in Chisholm, Minnesota.  Ray pleads with him, telling him that most men would consider getting so close to their dream for only five minutes would be a tragedy.  Doc. Graham? “Son, if I'd only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes... now that would have been a tragedy.” 

So, it’s back to Iowa Ray goes, with Terence in tow.  On the way, they come across a young man looking for a ride.  Ah, the days when it was safe to pick up hitch-hikers.  He says he’s a baseball player, and is looking for a team to play with.  Upon entering the van, he introduces himself.  It’s a young Archie Graham. 

They get to the farm, and Archie gets invited to play.  At this point, there are baseball players everywhere, playing real games.  Archie goes up against the pitcher, gets two strikes, and then nails it.  What’s that?  Am I tearing up?  Must be allergies…

The next day, the family is chillin’ out, watching the game.  Mark (Annie’s brother) shows up, telling Ray he needs to sell the farm.  They are completely broke.  Karen tells them they don’t have to sell the farm, because people will come and pay to hang out at the field.  Grabbing onto this idea, Terence delivers an incredible speech about baseball:

Damn allergies, acting up again…

So, Mark still thinks everyone is crazy, and he knocks Karen off the bleachers.  Her lips are blue, and she’s unconscious.  Seeing this, Archie makes his way through the players on the field, and crosses the baseline, transforming into his older self.  He sees that Karen is choking on the hot dog she was eating, dislodges it, and saves her.  But he can’t go back!  He thanks Ray for the opportunity, makes his way back through the players, and heads back to the corn field.  “Shoeless” Joe stops him, and tells him he was good.  A little smile plays on Doc. Graham’s face, he nods and fades into the corn.  Fuck you, allergies, I’m getting some Benadryl…

At this point, Mark can see the players, and the dollar signs.  He goes into the house, visions of tourists dancing in his head.  Joe invites Terence to go into the corn, and Ray’s a little peeved.  “That’s my corn!  You are guests in my corn!”  I am so gonna use that next time I have people over and they are being assholes.

But, see, Terence had given up on writing.  This is his chance to start writing again, because he has to write about this whole experience, and about what lies beyond the corn.  So, he goes.  Joe just stands there, staring at Ray as he heads to the house with his family.  Finally, he tells him that “If you build it, he will come” had little to do with “Shoeless” Joe, but rather was about reuniting Ray with his father John, who has been playing catcher all this time.  That Benadryl is doing nothing for me…

So, Ray introduces his wife and daughter to a young version of his father, who slowly realizes that Ray is his son.  As Annie and Karen head into the house, and Joe heads into the corn, Ray and his father are left on the field.  As John packs up his gear, Ray calls to him, “Dad? Wanna have a catch?”  Oh, fuck it, I’m crying.

Annie turns on the lights, and as father and son are reunited by tossing the baseball around, cards from nowhere are suddenly lining the roads, headed to the field of dreams. 

This movie is not about baseball.  It is about dreams.  And family.  And second chances.  There is a reason why it resonates so strongly with so many people.  And not only men, or baseball fans.  I am a female who casually likes baseball.  And this is one of my all-time favourite movies.  I strongly recommend that you not only check out this movie, but read the book it is based on, Shoeless Joe.  Also, check out the movie Eight Men Out, starring John Cusak.  It’s about the “Black Sox” Scandal.  It’s fun to compare the interpretations of “Shoeless” Joe – D.B. Sweeney in Eight Men Out plays him pretty stupid, Ray Liotta plays him pretty intelligent, my guess is he’s somewhere in between.

Also, did you know you can visit the Field of Dreams?  Yup.  It’s in Iowa, and still in existence.  There is no entry fee, but bring money to spend on souvenirs!  Someday, I will make a pilgrimage out there and sit in the bleachers, and maybe bring someone I can toss the ball with.  Check it out here!

And that’s a wrap!  Tomorrow (I promise!) a little taste of Canada, eh?