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Richard Dreyfuss (#110 of 7)

The 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival

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The 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival
The 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival

I emerged out of the train station and onto the roiling snake pit of Hollywood Boulevard this past Thursday afternoon with a singularity of purpose that has served well those who have learned to safely navigate this peril-ridden stretch of tourism and other desperate forms of humanity. Among the mass of logy sidewalk gawkers, shaggily costumed superheroes, and barkers hawking coupons for bus tours and free drinks at comedy clubs, the guy in the Creamsicle-colored tuxedo and matching top hat didn’t even cause me to balk as he moved toward me on the sidewalk. He certainly didn’t seem out of place, even as his lanky, six-and-a-half-foot frame towered above the stumpier heights of most everyone else bobbling down the Walk of Fame. But as we passed each other, this orangey giant suddenly offered up a loud, impassioned plea to the crowd, for no readily apparent reason, which put me at attention: “Remember Bob Hope!” Wondering if a declaration of fond tribute for, say, Mickey Rooney would have been timelier, I moved right along. No matter. There could be no doubt, if there ever was any, that the 2014 edition of the TCM Classic Film Festival, headquartered as always in the very heart of the mythological realm of Hollywood, was now officially under way, a gathering of film buffs vacationing from the real world among the icons and memories of movie-studio glory, where there would be no lack of warm remembrance for Hope or Rooney or any of a hundred other stars whose images and talents would be ceaselessly evoked and reminisced upon over the next four days.

15 Famous Movie Heavens

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15 Famous Movie Heavens
15 Famous Movie Heavens

No, this list-maker hasn’t had the pleasure of devouring Kate Hudson’s ticking-clock romance, A Little Bit of Heaven, which sees everyone’s favorite Almost Famous alum continue to chase her first hit like an undiscerning free-baser. The movie did, however, inspire thoughts of cinema’s approach to the great hereafter, which has been visualized as everything from an inhabitable oil painting to your good old field of clouds. Diagnosed with terminal cancer by a doctor (Gael García Bernal) who in turn becomes her squeeze, Hudson’s character tries for a little heaven on earth before her time runs out. These 15 heavens, however, almost all exist on another plane.

The Conversations: Jaws

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The Conversations: Jaws
The Conversations: Jaws

Ed Howard: The sudden resolution at the end of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is one of those great, absurd movie moments that makes me really giddy, that never fails to put a grin on my face. It’s a (literally) explosive climax to a film that, despite its reputation as a nonstop fright-fest, isn’t liberal with these kinds of grand, cathartic gestures. I realize that’s maybe an odd thing to say about a movie that’s credited with being one of the very first summer blockbusters. In 1975, buoyed by a massive national marketing campaign and one of the earliest applications of the “wide release” distribution strategy, Jaws quickly achieved unprecedented commercial success, becoming the highest grossing film of all time. Although Jaws’ record was surpassed just two years later by George Lucas’ Star Wars, another harbinger of a changing Hollywood, the success of Spielberg’s film was a big factor in shifting movie distribution from slow release patterns and word-of-mouth hype to huge marketing pushes and national saturation.

In retrospect, Jaws the film (as opposed to its marketing) is an unlikely candidate for such an important place in movie history. It is a thrilling, scary, often darkly funny movie, a great and entertaining movie, but its sensational content aside, it doesn’t have a whole lot in common with what we now think of as summer blockbusters: grandiose effects spectacles with massive budgets, amped up as loud and fast as possible. In comparison, Jaws feels like a very classical film, a taut thriller where the first half is a succession of build-and-release suspense/horror sequences, and the second half is exclusively about three men in a boat, alternately bullshitting in the cabin and chasing a killer shark. The special effects are rough, the shark is often unconvincing, and indeed Spielberg and his crew were plagued with problems involving the mechanical sharks. The effects limitations led to what turned out to be a brilliant aesthetic as well as practical decision: the shark is often not shown, especially in the first half, where the briefest glimpses of a fin or a tooth-filled maw, coupled with indirect evidence of the beast’s viciousness and tremendous size, are sufficient to induce dizzying terror.

This is a long way from Transformers: technologically of course, but also in spirit. Although Jaws wound up ushering in an era where bloody, explosive spectacles dominate the summer moviegoing season, Spielberg’s film is clearly working on a much smaller scale. The film is rooted in Hollywood classicism, populated with idiosyncratic characters who have plenty of room to speak and interact in between the action/horror set pieces. About the closest the film comes to modern blockbuster territory is the improbable mayhem of the climax, but by that point a moment of excess after two hours of simmering tension and restraint feels more than earned. That climax can still make me giddy, over thirty-five years after the film debuted, because it’s a true catharsis, a product of an era before blockbuster filmmakers strove to make every moment seem cathartic and overpowering. Unlike successors that pummel viewers with nonstop “thrills” for two hours or more, Jaws modulates its violence and action with Hitchcockian suspense and quiet character moments, and as a result its bigger notes (like that irresistibly grin-inducing final showdown) hit that much harder.

Summer of ‘86: Stand By Me, Take Two

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Summer of ‘86: <em>Stand By Me</em>, Take Two
Summer of ‘86: <em>Stand By Me</em>, Take Two

During the summer of 1986, my friends and I all thought Stand By Me was the greatest movie ever made, and we were sure it had been made for us, because though the characters in the film were a year or two older than we were, and though the story was set during our parents’ teenage years, we could all see ourselves in one of the four main characters. No film had ever seemed more real to me, more true, more beautiful. I was ten years old.

I know I saw Stand By Me in the theater, but I don’t remember with whom. Probably a couple of friends and at least one of our parents, because it was rated R and we were years away from being able to go to R movies on our own. How did we ever convince a parent to take us to a movie in which kids swear, smoke, and talk about sex? I have no recollection, but I expect it had something to do with the music.

The summer of ’86 for me was the summer of Stand By Me’s songs. Before seeing the movie, I scrounged up some money, or wore my parents down with whining, and got the soundtrack on LP. I remember my father’s delight with the album. He took a big cardboard box of 45 rpm records out of the closet and showed me the original singles of some of the songs on the album, singles he had bought at a record store when he was the age of Gordie and Chris and Teddy and Vern. I think I wanted the soundtrack because I had seen the music video on MTV, and I had certainly seen the trailer, which was ubiquitous on every channel. The title song was inescapable that summer, and though the brief scene with Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell lipsynching “Lollipop” is not in the trailer, I’m sure it was used in promotional materials. That song and Buddy Holly’s “Everyday,” also used prominently in the film, were two my father was especially nostalgic for.

Summer of ‘86: I Ran All The Way Home: Stand By Me, Take One

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Summer of ‘86: I Ran All The Way Home: <em>Stand By Me</em>, Take One
Summer of ‘86: I Ran All The Way Home: <em>Stand By Me</em>, Take One

Five years ago, I wrote a piece for House Next Door entitled “Boys Do Cry.” Its subject was movies at which men could cry with impunity. Keep in mind this was before John Boehner figured out that manipulative crocodile tears would do for him what they’ve done for women since Eve; society still frowned upon male bawling, especially about movies. Since I expected to be the only person “man enough” to admit shedding tears at celluloid, I chided our male readers, writing “if you’re a real man, you’ll chime in with your own choices.” My goal was to mock and deconstruct stupid macho bullshit codes by confronting one of them directly. I was warned the experiment could backfire, but just like a man, I didn’t listen. You can read the comments section under “Boys Do Cry” for the results of my pig-headedness. I mention it here because the last film in that piece’s list was Stand by Me.

Based on The Body, a novella from the same Stephen King work that would later yield The Shawshank Redemption and Apt Pupil (Different Seasons), Stand by Me was the second King adaptation appearing in the summer of 1986. Another story from a different collection became King’s directorial debut, Maximum Overdrive. King described Overdrive as “a moron movie,” which made 16-year-old Odie moronic because I kinda liked it. While some of the directorial choices are intriguing, Maximum Overdrive feels made by someone with a head full of raw steak.

5 for the Day: Boys Do Cry

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5 for the Day: Boys Do Cry
5 for the Day: Boys Do Cry

Society says that real men don’t eat quiche, and they don’t cry. Today’s 5 for the Day takes issue with the latter, offering up five movies that are guaranteed to put a lump in the throats of my fellow Y chromosome owners. For the sake of “society,” we can christen this piece “Five Movies It’s OK for Guys To Cry At ” or “Kleenex: It Isn’t Just for Porn.” So read ’em and weep, and if you’re a real man, you’ll chime in with your own choices.(Peer pressure…it’s fantastic!)?

1. Brian’s Song. (1971) “Ernest Hemingway once said ’Every true story ends in death.’ Well, this is a true story.” So begins perhaps the greatest love story between two straight men ever committed to celluloid. Brian’s Song is a 1971 TV movie starring Billy Dee Williams and James Caan, both one year removed from the movies that would make them legends (Lady Sings the Blues and The Godfather, respectively). Billy Dee plays Gale Sayers and Caan plays the title character , Brian Piccolo. Caan has never been looser or more charming, and you’d be hard pressed to find him generating more chemistry than he has with Williams. It’s the 60’s and, despite their different races and the fact they’re competing for the same position on the Chicago Bears, Brian and Gale become close friends. When Sayers is injured, Brian and his wife are there for him, helping him rehabilitate his wrecked knee. Sayers and his wife are able to return the favor when Brian falls ill. Since this is a true story, I can reveal that Brian is diagnosed with malignant cancer and dies. This is no disease-movie-of-the-week, though; it’s a devastating and moving 74-minute celebration of a life cut short, superbly written, directed, acted and scored (by Michel Legrand). I dare you to watch Sayers’ award acceptance scene, or the leading actors’ final scene together, and not be moved. Just thinking about it hits me like a 2 x 4 to the tear ducts.

Leap of Faith

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Leap of Faith
Leap of Faith

Like a lot of ambitious series, ABC’s Lost doesn’t hit a home run every week. In fact, a lot of weeks it strikes out, and even solid episodes contain stuff that makes you want to hide under the sofa (hamfisted psychoanalytic dialogue, out-of-character behavior, redundant flashbacks and the like). But this week it delivered what was, without a doubt (cue voice of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons) one of its best episodes ever. (Warning, spoilers galore.) This particular installment, “Dave,” was built around the present-tense mental and emotional crisis of zaftig everyman Hurley (Jorge Garcia), with flashbacks to his institutionalization and a couple of tasty subplots (including some tense moments in the hatch between Terry O’Quinn’s Locke and possible “Other” spy Henry Gale, brilliantly played by Michael Emerson). It was light on action, unless you count Hurley giving smug Paul Newman-wannabe Sawyer (Josh Holloway) a long overdue playground beatdown. But the longer I watch this series, the more convinced I am that the action-adventure elements—the big setpieces, the plot revelations, hell, the whole master narrative—are its least interesting and maybe least durable aspects. What hooks me is the Twilight Zone sci-fi-as-morality-play vibe, the sense that this island is not exactly real and not exactly a fantasy or dream, but is instead a dramatic tabula rasa for the characters, a place where metaphors become tangible, real enough to see and touch and even converse with; basically an immense psychic theater-in-the-round. “Dave” illustrated those qualities more deftly than any episode this season.