To Kill a Mockingbird

Wowza!

To Kill a Mockingbird (1963)

I had the privilege of viewing To Kill a Mockingbird in the theater recently as part of TCM and Fanthom’s collaboration that puts classics on big screens around the country for one-day events. The theater I visited was stuffed with viewers, which is great to see for an old movie even if it is something as popular as this one.

I’m not sure how long it had been since I had seen To Kill a Mockingbird from start to finish. I saw it for the first time as a high schooler after reading the book in school and thought it was a good flick then. But to see it as an adult with a better appreciation for cinema, strikes a much stronger chord.

The plot is almost two separate stories, with the trial of Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) interrupting the tale of Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford) growing up in small-town Alabama with their father as a top-notch role model. It is the trial portion of the story that is the most impactful for me. Not only is the unjust trial of a black man for the rape of a white woman frustrating to no end, but Atticus’ (Gregory Peck) handling of the case is remarkable. The trial is emotionally draining for both us and Atticus and the unfortunate end always draws tears.

Somehow Atticus seems to be the only person who thinks as we do today on this matter who is also brave enough to seek out and defend the truth. The ignorance of Mr. Ewell (James Anderson) and his disgusting nature is unbearable to witness as is the willingness of the townsmen to convict a man before he has had his day in court.

Scout’s interference when a mob attempts to access Tom at the jail before the trial also grabs at my throat. These angry men, some of whom would claim to be friends with Atticus, place the attorney in a precarious position, but the innocent and ignorant bliss of a child is enough to shame the aggressors into a retreat. The moment is unforgettable.

But life goes on after the trial and picks up where the beginning portion of the movie left off. The surrounding story depicts the adventures Scout and Jem have, especially during their summers out of school. In the summers they are joined by a visiting boy Dill (John Megna) who alters Scout’s relationship with Jem. Whereas the siblings seem to have existed as equal partners in crime, the arrival of Dill into the mix puts Scout in a subordinate position where she is regularly reminding the boys that their mischief is not a good idea and being consistently ignored.

One of the regular sources of curiosity is the Radley home. The Radleys have a son that the children believe to be a lunatic who was once held captive in the basement of the jail until he became sick from the dampness. The legend creates a Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) far more terrifying than the man who would intervene and save the lives Scout and Jem. Again, Atticus seems to be the only person in town who takes a rationale and honest view of the boy, which we see at the film’s end with his all-so-natural introduction of one Arthur Radley.

But despite the fear the children face at the thought of Boo, the mysteries related to their interaction with the home suggest to us that the man is a kind, gentle sort. The surprise untangling and folding of Jem’s pants that had been stuck in the Radley fence and the conveyance of trinkets in the hollow of a tree are only friendly gestures by a man living in a lonely world.

The brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird and its on-screen enactment is that it reminds all of us about being a child. We might not have grown up in a small town in the 1930s, but we all experienced adventure, spooky legends and fear of some unknown. We also all wish we had parents –and perhaps some of us did– like Atticus Finch. Although perfectly capable of disciplining his children for their disobedience, he approaches every situation with a level head and utmost calm. The children plainly respect their father as much as they love him.

Despite the impressive look of the little town, it is not a place you can visit. Universal built it on the studio backlot after surveying the actual town of Harper Lee’s book, Monroeville, which had seen many changes in the 30 years since the story’s setting. The studio even went so far as to disassemble and reestablish clapboard houses on the set, which gives it much of its realism. The movie won an Oscar for Best Art Direction. Among its other awards were Best Actor for Peck and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Source: Ben Mankiewicz

Feature: Newsiesversary

Newsies (1992)

I am afraid I might alienate a good number, if not all, readers by mentioning the “controversial” favorite movie of mine: Newsies. I say “controversial” because for those who are aware of the 1992 Disney live-action musical (the only one Disney made for theaters until High School Musical 3), they are surely shaking their heads in disappointment with my clearly lacking taste in movies (a very small sect might be cheering for the film’s mention, but I’m not holding my breath).

I feel the need to write – as briefly as I can manage — about Newsies because today happens to be my 10-year Newsiesversary, marking a decade since I became obsessed with the film. Dec. 15, 2000, was not my first viewing of the flick. I had watched it extensively as a kid after its TV premiere and subsequent recording by my parents. When re-watching it as a high schooler, I re-fell in love with it and thus began an extensive Internet-fueled hunt for all info Newsies. Although the obsession has certainly dwindled in recent years to the point of this once-a-year viewing, I still consider myself a fanatic, having relinquished my “NEWSIES” license plate only last August after a two-year stint (“I’m a reporter,” I would explain to unknowing pedestrians. Nice excuse, right?).

I was never one to deny that Newsies might be a terrible movie. It is loaded with continuity and historical errors that are fun to spot and sports a story line too complex for the child audience it targeted. When watching the movie with director’s commentary a year ago, however, I concluded that, no, in fact, Newsies is a bit of a masterpiece. When one considers how difficult it would have been to orchestrate a two-hour feature film using 20 primary teenage boy actors and hundreds of adolescent extras, it is a wonder Director Kenny Ortega accomplished anything, let alone getting them to sing and dance in sync. And one also cannot say the film is devoid of talent. Besides Ann-Margaret, Bill Pullman and Robert Duvall (who took the role because he was fascinated by the opportunity to play Pulitzer), the world has only recently come to appreciate the talent of Christian Bale. He might not have been able to sing well, but the newest face of Batman and his method-acting ways have made nothing but a splash in every picture he has done as an adult (The Machinist, Rescue Dawn, American Psycho).

The overwhelming cult fascination, albeit ignored by many digests of “cult classics”, also should give the movie some credence. Hundreds of teenage-made fan sites (including an extremely large one of my own that saw its demise with the death of Geocities) offer photos, bloopers, and trivia. At the time of my obsession’s start in 2000, the Yahoo! Newsies mailinglist had something like a thousand members who posted 300 emails per day. The appeal of the film lied almost exclusively in teenage girls and gay teenage boys because it was basically a bunch of cute boys singing and dancing on screen. The songs and the dances gave fans something to learn, and various inside jokes laid the way for a plethora of drinking games.

So in my attempts to keep this brief, I will conclude here, and look forward to my annual night with the movie. And for those who made it this far, I appreciate your attention.

Seize the Day

Bullitt

Ring a Ding Ding

Bullitt (1968)

     Bullitt is probably most well known for its fantastic, and rather long, car chase scene, but focus on the action sequence perhaps detracts from the merits of the plot. The film involves Steve McQueen playing a fairly stoic detective: Lt. Bullitt. He is assigned to protect a state’s witness who is brutally murdered during another detective’s watch. Even before the witness is officially dead, McQueen is out to find the murderer and potentially the reason behind the killing.  The mystery gets a bit complicated, however, when McQueen’s character discovers the man who was killed was actually a look-alike for the real witness.

     There is a scene in a hospital basement when McQueen is chasing down the hit man responsible for the shooting. Puzzlingly, however, is that McQueen is unarmed. The murderer carries an ice pick or some kind of metal shank, yet our protagonist pursues him empty handed. First this raises the question of why does a detective not carry a gun (were they forbidden in hospitals–I find that hard to fathom) but even more so, what does McQueen expect to do if he does manage to catch the villain? Perhaps the stylish sweater McQueen dons just does not have room for a gun–who knows.

     Returning to the car chase, if might interest you to know that the action was not all conducted by a stunt driver. McQueen allegedly learned to drive the Ford to be able to participate in the tire-squealing, hill-jumping fun that has become so well-known among movie lovers. The film takes place in San Francisco, so the steep inclines and declines add fuel to the excitement and add difficulty to the motorists’ maneuvers. The scene ends in a crash and considerable inferno resulting in the loss of another two individuals who might be able to tell us what the hell’s going on.

     Ultimately, neither McQueen nor the viewer fully unravels the mystery as (and perhaps this calls for a Spoiler Alert) all the characters who could reveal the meaning behind the initial murder and witness switcheroo are killed.  Despite this — and perhaps this is what prevents Bullitt from being a spectacular picture — is that I nearly did not care what the answer was. I was left with many questions but was content to let them go at the final fade-to-black. Bullitt seems to be more driven by catching a particular antagonist than revealing any sort of truth.

     Finally, I learned something about myself by watching Bullitt. The final shot of the movie is McQueen washing his hands in a bathroom sink, face down to the basin with a medicine cabinet mirror in front of him. I clearly have watched too many horror movies and thrillers, because anytime a shot is set up to show someone before a small mirror and not looking directly into said mirror, I have to assume the subject will raise his head and find a villain behind him ready to attack.

     Therefore, the ending of this film put me a bit on edge as a prepared for a shock, which is just about the opposite of the intent. The finale is supposed to convey a.) Bullitt washing “the blood” off his hands and b.) a moment of self analysis as he looks himself in the mirror and wonders if maybe his girlfriend was right–he is totally numb to the horrors of murder.

Source: Robert Osborne

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