As the cream rises closer and closer to the top you, my dear reader, get another set of examples illustrating my eclectic tastes. Today’s group includes a musical, a drama, an action-adventure, a comedy, and of course my favorite…the Christmas film. Enjoy.
Grease is the word. It’s got groove, it’s got meaning. Grease is the time, is the place, is the motion. Grease is the way we are feeling. Or atleast it’s the way I am feeling at the moment. Released in 1978 but set in the 1950’s, Grease is another one of those films that has a certain timeless quality. Not all of us constantly broke out into song in high school but the issues faced at that time in our lives…the cliques, peer pressure, the snarkiness, bittersweetness of innocent love, rebellion against authority, the absolute need to be cool…are universal. 21st century teens are faced with modern problems…drugs, STDs, gun violence…that make those dealt with in Grease seem innocent in comparison, but anyone who remembers high school knows what a huge deal those seemingly innocent obstacles feel like at the time. Based on a 1971 play that I have admittedly yet to see but hope to someday, Grease has long been one of my very favorite movies. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John star as star-crossed lovers who met over the summer and now end up at the same school. Travolta’s Danny Zucco is a leather jacket wearing bad boy and leader of The T-Birds, a fairly innocuous “gang” by today’s standards. Newton-John’s Sandy is the girl-next-door goody-two-shoes who isn’t quite edgy enough for the school’s female cool crew, The Pink Ladies. They and their friends engage in assorted hijinks like mooning a national TV audience when an American Bandstand-esque show broadcasts live from Rydell High, going head to head with a rival gang in a supposedly dangerous car race, and various breakups, arguments, and reunions. It’s all quite tame but nonetheless entertaining. The soundtrack is catchy and memorable. As a 3rd grader back in the early 80’s I once sang the song Sandy in a talent show. I was supposed to do it with two pals, but they no showed and I did it alone. I don’t think there is enough money or booze in the universe capable of getting me on a stage like that all these years later, but it is a fun memory. Grease still pops up on television quite frequently and has withstood the test of time quite well. I am shocked that someone hasn’t attempted to do a remake, and I sincerely hope that never happens. A sequel was made in 1982 starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Adrian Zmed, but it bombed at the box office and is usually mentioned in conversations about the worst sequels of all time. Personally I don’t hate it all that much, but there is no doubt that it doesn’t come close to stacking up against its predecessor. Olivia Newton-John never again attained the success she reached with Grease, and other than Saturday Night Fever it is Travolta’s signature role. I suppose other films may surpass it on my list as time passes, but I have no doubt that Grease will always hold a special place in my heart.
19 The Fugitive
Some movies are like wine…they get better with age and repeated viewings. Such is the case with The Fugitive, a film I liked when it first came out but have steadily grown fonder of as the years have passed. Based on a 1960’s television series, it is the story of an Indiana doctor who is convicted of murdering his wife and goes on the run (thanks to a train crash while en route to death row) to escape the death penalty, all the while maintaining his innocence and searching for the real killer who he claims is a one-armed man. In the TV show Dr. Richard Kimble pops up in a different small town each week with a fake name and doing odd jobs. Invariably his medical expertise is required and since he is a good guy he puts his efforts to remain under the radar aside and comes to the aid of people in need. This always attracts the attention of police Lieutenant Gerard who is doggedly pursuing Dr. Kimble across the fruited plain. The movie doesn’t stray too far from its origin story. Dr. Richard Kimble is portrayed by Harrison Ford with a mixture of pathos, street savvy, fear, courage, anguish, and determination. Gerard, now portrayed as a U.S. Marshal with gritty determination and sardonic wit by the exemplary Tommy Lee Jones, begins the chase. He and his posse don’t have to go far, as Dr. Kimble never leaves his hometown (although it is Chicago instead of a small Indiana hamlet). Kimble is hell-bent on finding the one-armed man, and Gerard is just as resolute in his mission to track down the convict. The cat & mouse game, the close calls, and the daring escapades of Kimble, who is concurrently pursuing and being pursued, gives the viewer a heart pounding edge-of-your-seat thrill ride while always remaining within the realm of plausibility and never straying from writing that is nothing short of excellent. The Fugitive is that rare action film with a well laid out plot. It does not rely on phony looking special effects and mindless explosions and gunfire for no apparent reason. The bus wreck/train crash that sets the chase in motion by facilitating Kimble’s escape is one of the more memorable scenes in recent movie history and kudos should be given to the folks who pulled that off. The climax is exciting though convoluted. The details of who really killed Kimble’s wife and why are secondary to the fact that it wasn’t him, he confronts the real culprit, and Gerard is thrown into the mix as a wild card whose actions are unpredictable. The one-armed man is sort of a MacGuffin, as he may have actually committed the crime but he was just a hired hand (pun very much intended). Tommy Lee Jones has flourished as a non-traditional leading character actor despite having to serve time as Algore’s roommate at Harvard in the 60’s, and he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his effort in The Fugitive. To be honest he is just as much the star as Ford though. Both men are pivotal to the success of the film. Could The Fugitive have been made with two different actors?? Sure. Would it have been anywhere near as good?? I have serious doubts. My affection for this film has been surprising to me, as it isn’t at all the type of movie I usually enjoy. And it is far and away one of the best movies based on a television series. I think the secret lies in the restraint exercised by both actor and director alike. There is action, but not the typical cartoonish violence we see in a lot of movies. There is drama and suspense, but the performances aren’t forced or over-the-top in any way. The Fugitive sneaks up on you, and I’m not complaining.
Carpe Diem. If you do not know what that means then you have never watched Dead Poets Society and you need to get yourself to a video store or on Netflix ASAP. I am a big fan of Robin Williams the comedian and Robin Williams the actor. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1998 for Good Will Hunting, but in my mind he should have received a statue 9 years earlier for this performance, a contest he lost to Daniel Day-Lewis who starred in some movie all of a dozen people ever gave a damn about. The movie itself was also nominated for Best Picture, as was a movie you will see later on in this list, Field of Dreams. Both lost out to Driving Miss Daisy. These two travesties of justice prove just how little the Hollywood award shows really matter. Anyway, Williams stars as John Keating, an English teacher at a stuffy New England prep school in the 1950’s. His teaching methods are rather…unconventional, which suits his students just fine but raises some eyebrows amongst the school’s old fashioned elitist hierarchy. Keating teaches his students about more than just what their books say…he teaches them life lessons. He implores them to “suck the marrow out of life” and to make their lives extraordinary. A small group of boys in his class discover that when Keating was a student he was part of a secret society that would sneak out at night, meet in a cave, and read poetry. That sounds innocent enough by 21st century standards, but in the time this story is set it has an air of mystery and danger. The boys revive this Dead Poets Society and begin to buy into what Keating is selling, challenging authority and refusing more and more to conform to others’ expectations. One of the students, Neil, defies his overbearing father by performing in a play. The father expects Neil to matriculate to Harvard and become a doctor. The burden of this battle eventually persuades Neil to commit suicide. An investigation is launched, and somehow Keating is blamed for Neil’s death and loses his job. I know it sounds depressing, and the school, its faculty, and the obtuse parents are depressing. But Keating is the type of inspirational teacher we all wish we’d had more of in school. Williams’ performance is extraordinary. He throws in some of his trademark humor, but for the most part reigns in the manic schtick and is rather understated and nuanced. I wish he would make better choices with his roles, because when given good stuff to work with like Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Good Morning Vietnam he knocks it out of the park, making it all the more disappointing when his ample talents are wasted in crap like Toys, Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man, and Death to Smoochy. The group of boys who are the main focus of the story are portrayed by young actors who I thought might become a bit more successful, with the most famous among them being Ethan Hawke in what was only his 2nd film. Dead Poets Society has aged well and has that timeless quality that I seem to gravitate toward. It is a bittersweet viewing for me these days. When the movie came out over 20 years ago I was on the verge of attending college and had my whole life in front of me. The advice given by Keating resonated deeply. Two decades later and I realize just how much I did not seize the day and just how unextraordinary my life has been. Dead Poets Society should be shown to all high school seniors or college freshman, with the directive to take the road less travelled, contribute a verse to the poem of life, and live up to what we are fully capable of with passion and vigor all being given special emphasis. Carpe Diem indeed.
17 Bull Durham
If baseball were as fun as Bull Durham makes it look I could totally buy into the whole bit about “the national pastime”. Watching this movie we see nothing about steroids, gambling, or other cheating scandals. The players are portrayed as loveable ne’er-do-wells who aren’t too bright but they sure do know how to have fun. Rather than give us a glimpse of the big leagues, Bull Durham gives us some insight into the minor leagues, where the players aren’t playing for megabucks and being treated like kings. They are renting rooms, riding on buses, and finding ways to combat boredom between games. Kevin Costner stars as Crash Davis, a long-in-the-tooth veteran catcher who is given the task of holding the hand of dimwitted bonus baby pitcher Nuke Laloosh, played by Tim Robbins in his breakout role. They form an odd triangle with Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon), a groupie who chooses one player from the Durham Bulls each season with which to have an affair. Annie is…unique. She has a singular set of values, and views herself as sharing more than just a bed with her chosen beau. It is a strange brew of spiritualism, friendship, poetry, metaphysics, sensuality, and moral support. She tells us, in a voiceover at the start of the film, that she believes in “the Church of Baseball” because she has “tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. There are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring… which makes it like sex. There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of his career. Making love is like hitting a baseball: you just gotta relax and concentrate. Besides, I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250… not unless he had a lot of RBIs and was a great glove man up the middle. You see, there’s a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds. Sometimes when I’ve got a ballplayer alone, I’ll just read Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman to him, and the guys are so sweet, they always stay and listen. ‘Course, a guy’ll listen to anything if he thinks it’s foreplay. I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe, and pretty. ‘Course, what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball It’s a long season and you gotta trust. I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.” When Crash refuses to “try out” Nuke becomes Annie’s boy toy by default. Meanwhile, the relationship between pitcher and catcher is volatile, as world-weary Crash resents the “million dollar arm and ten-cent head” of the wildly goofy Nuke. The supporting cast is chock full of unknowns whose career highlight likely was Bull Durham, but that is just fine. The three main characters along with a strong, well written, amusing script are enough to make this a movie that has stood the test of time. One cannot help but think of it when attending any type of baseball game. Every time I see a “conference” on the mound I wonder if they are really talking about live roosters, jammed eyelids, and how candlesticks make a nice wedding gift. Eventually our trio comes to a crossroads. Nuke is called up to “The Show” and we get an inkling that some of Crash’s wisdom may have actually seeped through. Crash is released from the team once his babysitting task is done and must decide whether or not to call it a career or keep chasing a dream he knows will never become reality. And Annie must face her feelings for Crash. There is a certain sweetness mixed in with the hilarity, and that is a good combination. Writer/director Ron Shelton has done a few other notable films…White Men Can’t Jump and another Costner vehicle, Tin Cup, among them. But Bull Durham is one more case of lightning in a bottle, a once in a lifetime piece of magic that is almost impossible to replicate.
16 The Polar Express
So many words come to mind when trying to describe The Polar Express, but over the years I have come to settle on a just a few…whimsical, magical, and hauntingly beautiful. It somehow manages to put a smile on one’s face and bring a tear to the eye at the same time. The Polar Express is the quintessential embodiment of the spirit of Christmas. Does it invoke the name of Jesus or talk about the true reason for the season?? No. But I suppose I have become sort of immune to that type of omission. I understand the forces of political correctness and the fact that Christianity is a target in our modern world. Readers of The Manofesto know of my immense fondness for Christmas movies, and I am at peace with the fact that they either focus on the inherent wackiness of family interaction during the holidays (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Four Christmases, Home Alone), confront commercialization and its many branches (A Christmas Story, Deck the Halls), or tell a variation on the story of Santa (The Santa Clause, Elf, Miracle on 34th St., Fred Claus). I am strong in my faith and don’t need validation from Hollywood. However, I do like stories that, in their own way, talk about things that are representative of the teachings of Christ and exemplify the undefined, you-know-it-when-its-present Christmas Spirit. The Polar Express is based on a 1985 children’s book but did not get the big screen treatment until 2004. A big reason for that is the motion capture technology used, which wasn’t available in the 80’s. I cannot imagine a live action movie being within the realm of possibility, and I am so very glad an ordinary, ho-hum, been there done that animated film was not made. Some find motion capture to be a bit creepy, and it is very distinctive. Personally I find it visually stunning, which probably plays a major role in my affinity for The Polar Express. The story involves a young boy, never named or given an age, but seemingly right at that point in life where his belief in Santa Claus is beginning to wane. As he lay in his bed on Christmas Eve thinking over this very subject, a locomotive screeches down his street. This train if for children exactly like him…kids who are on the verge of putting Santa in the ol’ rear view mirror. The boy boards the train and makes friends with a young girl, a shy boy, and an annoying know-it-all. The trip toward the North Pole is full of action and adventure, but the group eventually makes it safely. Once there they meet Santa Claus and the boy is given the first gift of Christmas for that year, a small sleigh bell. The movie closes with a poignant voiceover that basically says that true believers will always hear the ringing, but most of us eventually lose the ability to hear the lovely sound of the bell. I take that as an allegory, alluding to the fact that most of us don’t see or hear the beauty in the world because we get too busy and caught up in our own drama. We don’t take time to stop and listen. I am 37 years old and long ago learned the truth about Santa, but there is and hopefully always will be a small part of me that yearns for the myth to be true. Jesus tells us in the book of Matthew that we are to be like little children, retaining our innocence and always leaning on Him for guidance. We have a tendency to grow up and shed our idealism in favor of doubt, skepticism, and cynicism. I have never had an issue with Santa Claus as a symbol of Christmas because I think that he represents the purity of childhood, an ideal state that The Lord tells us we need to somehow retain. I think Jesus and Santa would be friends. That statement may be equally offensive to hardcore Christians and agnostic secular types, and that’s okay…to each his own. As for me, I will continue to look forward each Christmas season to watching The Polar Express and being magically transported back in time, to that period in my life when all seemed right with the world.