Category Archives: Movie Memories

What’s On Your DVD Shelf?

Media formats, much like M*A*S*H’s Col. Flagg, come and go like the wind. From nitrate film to laser disc to video tape, Betamax to VHS, DVD to Blu-Ray to an iTunes purchase floating in the cloud of bits and bytes to … a chip implanted under the skin of your neck on the day of your birth, or whatever’s next. And with each change, cinema wonks have had to search their souls and decide: are any of the films I liked enough to purchase in a now-outdated format worth buying all over again in a new format?

mod dvd spinesThe DVD format still has many charms for me. Since my movie memories include the age of VHS, DVDs combine the best of that experience (the joy of being able to to watch your chosen flick whenever you like) minus the hassles (no room for much except one feature film, plus the likelihood of your player going haywire and chewing up your media). And as hopelessly hooked as I am on Netflix on-demand, they’re stingy with the “making-of”s and other extras that can add so much to the pleasure of a film that intrigues you.

So here are the contents of my DVD shelf, and what the future holds for each of them, in three categories:

Must-haves: I want to have a copy of these in all future formats, or guaranteed access to these on-demand, in perpetuity, world without end:

  • All three Austin Powers movies: for Dr. Evil’s “meat helmet” soliloquy alone
  • Be Kind Rewind: a love letter to movies, and the renting thereof
  • Best in Show: for Fred Willard’s loopy commentary
  • The Big Lebowski: So many reasons. Partly because  Walter’s eulogy for Donnie includes the word “Pismo”. Like that rug that sets its plot in motion, it ties so many #@!!* things together.
  • Chicago: for the black humor (“Pop, six, squish … Lipschitz”) leavened with just enough real emotion (“Mr. Cellophane”)
  • Chicken Run: for the chickens drawing complex diagrams, a genuinely scary female villain, and the Great Escape references
  • Chinatown: for that great closing line. Also, because Jack Nicholson spends so much of the film bandaged up after being too nosy, and deflecting others’ expressions of either sympathy or contempt for his injury.
  • Dr. Strangelove: again, if you have to ask why, you need to see it again. (Preferably at the age of nineteen, in a midnight showing at a college student union.) See my earlier entry.
  • Election: for of the look on Matthew Broderick’s face when his character says in a voiceover, “And that’s when I knew – it was time to leave Omaha.” See my earlier entry.
  • Fargo: because once when the A/C broke at our house in July, this movie, with its endless expanses of snow, and cold-blooded murders, was the only thing that took the edge off the heat and irritation of waiting for the repairman to come.
  • Flushed Away: for those singing slugs, and for Aardman’s always-terrific way with telling a story through animation: cute and clever, but light on sentimentality.
  • Human Nature: because of Rhys Ifans’ inspired portrayal of Puff, the man raised as an ape. This movie starts with pseudo-scientific pomposity, then tears off its metaphorical clothes and bolts, gibbering, into the jungle of loopy fantasy.
  • Life of Brian: Because this movie says more about the subject of religion than you’ll hear from more serious and long-winded sources.
  • The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: For the quirky animations that pop up unexpectedly. For Anjelica Huston and Willem Dafoe and Cate Blanchett and the gorgeous scenery. Because the first couple of times I watched it, it made me laugh really hard. And because the last couple of times I watched it, it was more like a meditation on how hard it is to pursue your passion, and make enough money, and treat other people like you should, all while getting older and trying to hunt down that shark that ate your best friend.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Because the first time I saw it, when I was not quite eighteen, at midnight in the Student Union at the University of Kansas, I looked around at the auditorium filled with people I had just met a few weeks ago: friends and fellow dorm-dwellers and classmates, and listened to them guffawing and shrieking along with The Knights Who Say “Ni!”, and thought, “These … these are my people.”
  • Moulin Rouge: Because I was already fascinated with the turn-of-the-century art world, and especially with Toulouse-Lautrec‘s work. Because I never thought of adding “Nature Boy” and “Material Girl” to that world, but combine those with a gigantic hollow elephant, and it all works.
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? Because on the same day the husband and I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the theater, we also went to see this. One is a visually inventive story from a long-ago time, set in an exotic and unfamiliar place. And the other includes a scene in which three hoboes escape from a burning barn in the company of a pig, riding in a car driven by a child with a penchant for shooting at census-takers. And now you know which of these two films I saw fit to add to my collection.
  • Raising Arizona: On second thought, maybe I don’t actually need a copy of this one, because most of it seems to have lodged permanently in my brain. The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse … Unpainted Huffheines… it’s all part of a spree to cover the entire Southwest proper.
  • Young Frankenstein: Because Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder obviously saw the same Universal black-and-white monster movies that KTUL’s early-morning and Saturday-night programming introduced me to, but they ran it through their own cuckoo blender. Because you need something to watch on Halloween if you’re staying home to give out candy to trick-or-treaters. Blücher!

Special category:
Some DVDs will stay in my collection because they’re gifts from important people in my life. My oldest friend gave me Sixteen Candles and Fast Times at Ridgemont High for my 40th birthday. Only another Gen-Xer could understand fully why I dissolved into delighted hysterics when I opened the package. And my dear husband gave me Ghost World (the “tampon-in-a-teacup” scene could have come straight from my freshman Design I class in the fall of 1984 at KU.) And Strictly Background, the small gem directed by Jason Connell, a fellow Okie with an eye for quirk.

Not indispensable:

  •  Elf: I seem to require a new crop of Christmas movies every few years. This one’s a charmer, but I might take it out of the rotation for a couple of years.
  • Hell’s Angels: worth seeing once for the sequences aboard the zeppelin. But everything that takes place on the ground is boring. (Kudos to my dear husband for finding this one in a bargain bin. We saw The Aviator and it piqued our interest in Howard Hughes. This was years before Netflix made it easier to view less-well-known older flicks.)
  • Lilo and Stitch: Stitch’s freaky way with an LP cracked me up every time I saw a “coming attractions” that included this clip. Every cotton-pickin’ time. Still does. Otherwise, too much Disney sentiment.
  • Pink Panther: Like Raising Arizona, this one’s burned into my brain. I was fortunate enough to grow up with a devoted Inspector Clouseau fan (my dad). So I learned very young that it’s hilarious to speak mangled English with a French accent. I don’t really require this DVD to remind me.
  • Polar Express: Maybe I just need to take this one out of the holiday-movie rotation for a few years. The sweeping vistas and action sequences are still terrific. But some of the human figures look a little creepy: a little too realistic, but not quite lifelike enough.
  • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: The Art Deco cityscapes and robots are nifty, but the plot and dialogue are warmed-over pulp, and Gwyneth Paltrow is unappealing and seems uncomfortable as the leading lady.
  • Sweeney Todd: Tim Burton directing a musical about cannibalism? Sounded like a dream team to me. But it loses the dark charm of the original stage version with its focus on sheer gore.
  • Waiting for Guffman: The fictional town of Blaine, Missouri is worth an occasional visit, but not so vital that I have to hang onto this disk.

So, fellow wonks, what formats are you favoring these days? Which of your favorite flicks are worth buying in newer formats, and which are staying in the dustbin of cinematic history? Feel free to send me your lists, or a photo.

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Father of the Wonk

Father of the WonkDads. They ask for so little for themselves, even on the day that’s dedicated to them. (Click here for gift ideas.)

My own dad is not quite the cinema buff that my mom was. So my fond memories of growing up with him include more things like a Saturday morning spent learning how to cross my eyes, and watching many drawings of horses – usually dressed in hats, collars and big wide neckties – emerge from his mechanical pencil. But here are a few movie-related experiences with my dad that helped shape the wonk I am today:

True Grit” (original and remake): As a teenager I came close to being nocturnal (thanks partly to my job at the local movie theatre). Coming home late one night, I found Dad still up and watching “True Grit”. “You gotta listen to this dialogue,” Dad said, and turned up the volume just in time for me to hear Glen Campbell say to Kim Darby, “A little earlier I gave some thought to stealin’ a kiss from you, although you are very young… and you’re unattractive to boot. But now I’m of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.” That was all the reason I needed to stay up and keep watching with Dad. Growing up in Oklahoma, I had seen plenty of Westerns – both the TV and film varieties. And my mother’s interest in classic Hollywood movies had already introduced me to the idea that good dialogue was important to a film. But this kind of pleasingly quirky talk was not something I expected from horse operas. When Dad accompanied my husband and me to see the remake of “True Grit” in 2011, that scrumptious bit of verbage was one of the ones I was hoping that the Coen brothers would see fit to keep in, along with “A clumsier child you’ll never see than Horace; I bet he broke 40 cup” and “Son, your partner’s kilt you and I’ve done for him.”

“Cat Ballou”: This was the first movie I recall watching on the first VCR that my parents bought, around the time I started college. My sister and I had never heard of this film. But Dad had seen it when it first came out, and recalled a scene in which Lee Marvin, drunk, is mounted on his horse, also drunk, which has its front legs crossed and is leaning against a building while they both try to look nonchalant. So when I was home on Thanksgiving break, we gave it a look. It’s a hoot: Lee Marvin playing twin brothers, one of whom sports a prosthetic silver nose, Greek-chorus-style musical commentary by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye, and … oh, go check this one out, or watch it again.

“Raising Arizona”: Another offbeat gem set in the American West. This was the last movie we went to see all together as a family before I left for college. Come to think of it, this was probably my first Coen brothers movie. We arrived at the showing a little late (very unusual for my punctual family), but took our seats, had a heck of a good time guffawing at lines like “Son, you got a panty on your head”, stayed just long enough into the next showing to see what we’d missed, then trooped out just as quietly as we had come.

“To Please a Lady”: Finding out that both my dad and I had seen this movie was a complete surprise. I plucked it off the DVD shelf at the public library, figuring that any movie with both Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck had to be just odd enough to warrant a look. The title made me think it would be geared for a female audience, but there’s a lot of auto racing in it. Clark Gable plays a midget car racer who performs in a “Thrill Show” owned by Joie Chitwood. I only recognized Chitwood’s name because it had come up not long before in conversation with my dad (a lifelong car enthusiast). An email to Dad revealed that he’d seen “To Please a Lady” when it first came out. Same movie, viewed 60 years apart, for different reasons.

… and a few flicks Dad wasn’t too crazy about: Most conscientious parents end up sitting through films they don’t much care for, just to please their kids. Mom and Dad both endured their share of Disney’s kid-focused extravaganzas. (Although my dad has expressed a fondness for “The Jungle Book”.) And during my especially awkward early-teen years, when I was old enough to be obsessed with sci-fi and fantasy, but too young to drive myself anywhere, who gave up irreplaceable weekend time to take me to the entire original “Star Wars” trilogy, “Flash Gordon”, and Ralph Bakshi’s version of “Lord of the Rings”? My dad.

If your pop is a cinema buff, treat him to an afternoon at the movies on Father’s Day. If he’d rather be doing something else, give your movie obsession a break and join him in that activity. Because whether you spell it “paterfamilias” or “far-ger”, you’ve only got one dad.

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Would You Watch Flicks With A Goat? Would You Watch Them In A Boat?

Watching movies in a boat, with a goat For true cinema wonks, the answer is always “Yes!” (unless the goat has neglected to bring along some chevre to share, or the boat is loaded with people who talk during movies and have come equipped with crying infants and jangling cell phones.)

Funny how much the physical setting we’re in affects our impression of a film. Recently my husband and I found ourselves in a makeshift drive-in in Medicine Park, Oklahoma while we were on vacation. There we were, minding our own goat cheese, ambling down the main drag in the soft evening air, when a big parking lot across the street sprang to life with an episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies”, projected onto a screen just slightly too big for someone’s living room. So husband and I found an open park bench and passed a pleasant 20+ minutes in the company of Jed Clampett and kin, along with dozens of fellow Okies watching from lawn chairs and the beds of pickups.

Turns out this was only the beginning: as soon as the final notes of Flatt and Scruggs died away, “The Flying Tigers” blazed onto the screen. Husband is a lifelong fan of the Duke, and I’ll watch just about anything, especially if it’s older than I am and in black-and-white. So we watched as long as we could, til the park bench became too hard and we weren’t sure we could find our way in the dark back to our charming cottage if we waited any longer. Next morning, the drive-in was gone like Brigadoon (although the coffee and outstanding baked goods at Mrs. Chadwick’s were wonderfully real).

This got me thinking about the different environments I’ve watched movies in, aside from the usual living room/auditorium/theater settings. Actual drive-in theaters (not the DIY Medicine Park kind) were a little past their peak by the time I came along. Neither of my parents was that interested in trying to watch a movie with squirmy or drowsy kids from inside a car using a tinny sound system, surrounded by others trying to do the same (or not). So I have only one very hazy memory of being at a drive-in as a youngster, as well as a couple of visits as an adult to the Admiral Twin in Tulsa, Oklahoma with husband. (The films we saw at the Admiral Twin were “Desperado” and “Waterworld”. The drive-in setting wasn’t particularly kind to either one.)

Here are a couple of other offbeat settings I’ve encountered, and the movies I saw there:

  • The restored Orpheum Theater in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, for “Lilo and Stitch”. This is the only two-story movie theater I’ve ever been in. (I think our showing was upstairs.) Kinda cramped, but the caged bird in the lobby added to its charm.
  • The dining hall of a nursing home in midtown Tulsa, for “Boys Town”, “White Christmas”, and several other old flicks. At one time, my church did kind of a “movie ministry” at one of the local nursing homes. No big agenda, just a way to spend a couple of hours one Sunday afternoon a month with older folks who didn’t get many visitors. Showing movies that they might remember from their younger days seemed like something we could manage without requiring too much time or expense. We did get a few audience members each time, most of whom shuffled in and out, or dozed through whatever VHS tape we were able to coax the home’s balky VCR to play.

What are some unusual settings that you’ve watched movies in? (And would you recommend these environments to others, or not?) Share your experiences in the Comments, won’tcha?

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Mom, the Movies and Me

Mom and me: 2 popcorn buckets at the moviesMother’s Day is coming up. (Quick, order a nice bouquet, or something more unexpected,  if you haven’t already obtained a Mom-appropriate gift!) My own mom had a lot of influence on my interest in movies (to say nothing of the countless other ways she shaped me). Maybe your mom did, too. Here are a few film-related gems of wisdom she passed on to me:

Movie manners: my mom was the one that taught me that it was OK to come into a movie after it had already started, and then stay just long enough into the next showing to see the part you missed.

Some words are so much funnier than others: Like “kumquat”. Mom pointed this out one fine day when I was watching “It’s A Gift*”, probably on the “Channel 8 Morning Movie” from KTUL. She was walking through the room with a load of laundry during the scene in which W.C. Fields is cornered in his grocery store by a customer with a very specific demand. And that demand is KUMQUATS. (Watcher beware: a lot of the humor in the YouTube clip at this link is at the expense of the sight- and hearing-impaired.) But, laundry-burdened though she was, Mom had time to point out to me that “kumquats” made that scene much funnier than “apples” would have. This insight seemed magical to me at the time. And for someone like me who really treasures anything funny, and who on occasion tries to be funny myself, it’s been priceless. Can’t thank you enough, Mom.

Alec Guinness had a career before Obi-Wan: One branch of Mom’s family came from the British Isles, and she was always partial to the particular brand of dry wit that the British do so well. Lest I think that Alec Guiness‘ distinguished career began and ended with “Star Wars”, she introduced me to “Kind Hearts and Coronets” and the original “The Ladykillers” . Which opened the door to the quaint, often funny, occasionally dark world of films made at Ealing Studios. Their movies are still comfort food to me.

It’s OK for feminists to laugh at dumb blondes: Mom and Dad both made sure my sister and I got good educations and were otherwise well prepared to thrive as independent women. (Regrettably, I don’t think any video exists of Mom, my sister and I sashaying around the kitchen while Helen Reddy belted out “I Am Woman” from a cassette in our clunky portable black tape recorder.) That said, Mom wasn’t above the occasional snicker at the expense of our own gender. She and I watched “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” together, and Mom hooted louder than I did at Lorelei Lee’s “I can be smart when it’s important“. Which introduced me to the idea that, once in a while, it’s OK to be just clever enough to get what you want. She also sent the occasional mixed message. There’s a scene in “The Quiet Man” in which John Wayne drags – yes, literally drags – his wife, played by Maureen O’Hara, up hill and down dale to bring her back home after she’s tried to leave him. It’s supposed to demonstrate that he cares about their marriage enough to take drastic action. But by more modern standards – the standards my parents wanted to instill in us – it’s cringe-inducing. Yet when we watched it together, there was Mom at the other end of the couch, chortling. And when one of the village matriarchs steps in to lend John Wayne a hand with the words “Sir!… Sir!… Here’s a good stick, to beat the lovely lady“, Mom dissolved completely in laughter.

Later she made a point of taking me to see “The Color Purple“. But I wasn’t quite ready to take in all that that film had to say. (My escapist tendencies were already forming.) Wish I’d been a little more mature.

It seems fitting that one of my last memories of spending time with my mom includes a movie. By this time, she was having serious health problems, but sitting together watching movies was something we could still manage. That evening, it was Marilyn Monroe again, in fabulous black-and-white, in “Some Like It Hot“. The terrific dialogue (Billy Wilder, one of my all-time favorites, was one of the screenwriters) includes Marilyn lamenting, “I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.” Mom managed a soft chuckle, and that expression earned a permanent place in my vocabulary.

Mom passed away a few years ago, but as you can probably guess I think of her just about every time I’m about to enjoy a classic movie. If your mom is still with us, be sure and give her a hug on Mother’s Day and every other time you get the chance. And if you have any movie-centric memories of your own mom, dad or other family members, I’d be honored if you shared them here.

* This movie was hilarious to me when I was in kindergarten, and forty years later it still cracks me up. How many things are there in life that you can say that about? You must meet Mr. LaFong: click here.

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