A few Kirk Douglas favorites

An American icon died this week at the ripe old age of 103, actor Kirk Douglas. He was an imperfect man in an image making business. Yes, he had affairs, but he also gave a job to a blacklisted director who was caught up in the Senator Joe McCarthy communist witch hunt. And, his roles were not always the heroic ones. He played many gray characters and some who were the antagonist.

Here are four movies that are worth the effort, which provide a glimpse of Douglas. He made countless movies, some great, some good and some OK. But, he was a highly prolific actor.

The Vikings – Released in 1958, this movie has an excellent starring cast, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, and Ernest Borgnine. Douglas plays the antagonist to Curtis’ hero. It was my first exposure to Leigh, who I would bet many a boy had a crush on. The movie was directed by Richard Fletcher and written by Dale Wasserman and Calder Willingham.

Spartacus – Released in 1960, this movie stars Douglas as the hero Spartacus, whose men are so devoted to him, are willing to take his place at his crucifixion. “I’m Spartacus,” is the often imitated line. It stars Laurience Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by Dalton Trumbo .

Last Train from Gun Hill – Released in 1959, this is a personal favorite because of the plot and cast. It stars Douglas as a Sheriff whose Native American wife is raped and killed as she tries to escape. Anthony Quinn plays an old friend whose son Earl Holloman is involved. And, any movie with the wistfully beautiful Carolyn Jones will be good. The movie was directed by John Sturges and written by James Poe and Les Crutchfield.

The Man from Snowy River – Released in 1982, this Australian movie stars Douglas in two roles (brothers) – the antagonist father and the supportive old man. It stars Tom Burlinson, as the protagonist, Sigrid Thornton as the his love interest and Jack Thompson who is excellent in any movie he does. The movie has a terrific score and was directed by George Miller and written by Banjo Peterson and Cal Cullerson.

These are only a few of his great roles. He played Ulysses, he played Vincent van Gogh, he played a boxer, and he played cowboys, war heroes and detectives. His son Michael had an excellent career as an actor and director. He did have a great line about his wife. He said if she ever left him, he was going with her. Douglas was an icon. And, he was a great actor.

Movies worth a look

As a means of distraction or illumination, movies provide a necessary vehicle. Looking past the blockbuster action hero movies, here are few to consider for theater-going or downloading.

In no partiicular order:

“Knives Out” is in theaters now and is an entertaining who-done-it? Daniel Craig leads a very recognizable cast.

“Dark Waters” is more illuminating than distracting as Mark Ruffalo stars in a true-life chemical cover-up that went on for years hurting consumers, locals and employees.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is the story of Mister Rogers’s impacting the lives of many children, but also helping the life of an interviewer, the basis for the movie. Tom Hanks ably plays Mister Rogers.

“Midway” is a well-rounded view of the crucial battle of Midway a key refueling island in the Pacific during WWII. Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson and Ed Skrein star in an ensemble cast as the movie focus on both American and Japanese perspectives.

“Ford vs. Ferrari” is an excellent drama around Ford’s efforts to compete in Le Mans racing against recurring champion Ferrari. Christian Bale and Matt Damon star as the racer and racing car designer.

“Judy” is an excellent piece of acting by Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland, late in her career. It focuses on a brief time where Garland plays a London venue to enable her to keep her children.

“Once upon a time in Hollywood” stars Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in a remake of a Hollywood tragedy. It is a Quentin Tarentino movie which is akin to the rewriting of history in “Inglorious Bastards.”

“Tolkien” did not do well at the box office, but is quite good. It focuses on Tolkien’s boyhood and early adult life which led him to his creative fantasy writing of “The Hobbit.” It stars Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien and Lily Collins as his muse and love interest.

Let me know what you think of these movies, avoiding spoilers where possible. Also, what other movies would you recommend?

Renee Zellweger is superb in “Judy”

My wife and I saw the marvelous movie about the a brief period in the career of Judy Garland simply called “Judy.” Renee Zellweger plays the part so well, you believe she is Judy. I encourage you to go see it, but do take some tissue.

The movie does a nice job of flipping back to past moments in Garland’s life to provide some context. It adds a great deal to the film and makes you pull for the adult Judy even more, in spite of her challenges.

The movie is directed by Rupert Goold and is based on the broadway play called “End of the Rainbow,” by Peter Quilter. Quilter and Tom Edge wrote the movie screenplay. Darci Shaw plays the young Judy, while key parts are played by Jessie Buckley who caretakes Judy while in London, Finn Wittrock who plays a young beau, Michael Gambon who plays the producer of the London show, Rufus Sewell who plays Sidney Luft (the father of two of her children), and Royce Pierreson who plays the pianist/ conductor. Her two girls are played by Gemma-Leah Devereaux (Liza Minelli) and Bella Ramsey (Lorna Luft). A key role is played by Andy Nyman as a Judy fan in London.

But, this is Zellweger’s movie to shine as Judy. We knew she could sing from “Chicago,” but she adds flavor to Judy’s older voice lessened some by smoking, drinking and other issues. The movie covers a five week period when she ventures to London for a series of performances at a large club venue. I will leave off the rationale and mission of the gig, as that is an important part of the movie.

Go see it and tell me what you think. For spoiler alerts, I will ask future readers to not read the comments.

“In her shoes” is punctuated by an ee cummings poem

My wife and I caught a movie from 2005 on HBO this week that was moving. The movie is called “In her shoes,” and stars Cameron Diaz and Toni Collete as sisters, with Ken Howard and Shirley MacLaine as their father and grandmother. Mark Feuerstein plays a great role as Collette’s fiancĂ©. The movie is directed by Curtis Hanson and the screenplay was written by Jennifer Weiner and Susannah Grant

The movie is accentuated by a poem that was read by Diaz’ character at her sister’s wedding just before the vows. We learn during the movie, Diaz is dyslexic, so reading does not come easily. She is coached by a retired, blind professor ably played by actor Norman Lloyd, who you might remember as the regimented headmaster in “Dead’s Poet Society.” The poem is by ee cummings and is apropos. Here it is in all of its cummings’ intentional lack of punctuation glory:

I carry your heart

I carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
not fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

e. e. cummings

The poem is breathtakingly poignant. I have included one spoiler above with the wedding reference, but will leave it at that. MacLaine’s role is vital in the movie and she is at her best. If you have a chance, give it a look. You may need a tissue.

Rocketman and Yesterday

Yesterday, my son and I saw the movie “Yesterday” about a young singer who is in an accident caused by a blackout leaving him injured, but also the only person on the planet who remembers The Beatles. The movie stars Himesh Patel as the singer and Lily James as his manager and largest fan among very few. Yet, it is abetted by the role Ed Sheeran plays as himself recognizing the genius songwriting and Kate McKinnon as both performers greedy manager.

Last month, my wife and I saw “Rocketman,” a biopic about Elton John and his songwriting partnership with Bernie Taupin. While it differs from “Yesterday,” both feature the musical genius of the songwriters and performers. “Rocketman” stars Taron Egerton as John with Jamie Bell playing Taupin. “Rocketman” also stars Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh as John’s unsupportive parents, whose best adult support came from his Nan played by Gemma Jones

In both movies, the stars sing the songs. Egerton does a highly credible job of singing like Elton. Patel does not sing as well, but that is a key part of the story. He is an unsuccessful singer who starts singing great music, while Egerton is playing the singer. “Yesterday” is directed by Danny Boyle with the story and screenplay written by Richard Curtis and Jack Barth. “Rocketman” was directed by Dexter Fletcher with the story and screenplay written by Lee Hall.

Both movies are worth seeing. “Rocketman” reveals the musical genius of Elton John who could play songs after hearing them for the first time, even as a young boy. He was classically trained after his Nan helped him, but he could only go as he benefitted from a scholarship. Billy Joel, who toured with John later in their careers, noted John wrote backwards from most songwriters, writing the music to the words of Taupin.

“Yesterday” introduces the breadth of music by The Beatles to a younger audience featuring the songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney with a few of George Harrison’s thrown in. The movie includes songs from early in The Beatles’ career as well as songs off The White Album. Please stay around for the credits as well, as you will fade out with a well-known song.

It is hard to pick which movie is better. Since, I am a huge Beatles’ fan, I would have to give the nod to the latter, although the critics liked “Rocketman” a little better. It should be noted, I also liked the movie of a few years ago “Across the Universe,” which had young actors singing The Beatles’ songs as part of the plot, not unlike “Mamma Mia,” which uses ABBA’s music. I think both movies are just shy of the success of “Bohemian Rhapsody” about Queen which won some Academy Awards last year, but they are still highly entertaining.

Since my wife could not join us, I am likely to go see “Yesterday” again. I think it is worth another go. It should be noted Lily James also played in the sequel to “Mamma Mia” which came out last year. In “Yesterday,” her singing is relegated to playing a chorus in early recording sessions, but she adds greatly to the movie.

When memories of loved ones pop up unexpectedly

I watched a poignant video where a young woman was presented with a birthday gift of a talking teddy bear. The bear had a prerecorded voice and she soon realized the voice was her father’s speaking to her using her name. It brought tears as her dad had passed away a year before.

This beautiful story made me think of two poignant movie scenes and a real story. The first movie scene is from “Peggy Sue got married.” Kathleen Turner played Peggy Sue, who went back in time to avoid marrying her boyfriend who eventually left her. The poignant scene occurs when she answers the phone at her mom and dad’s house and hears her grandmother’s voice, who had died years before her time travel occurred. It gives me chills to write this as she spoke to a departed loved one once again.

The other movie scene is from “Field of Dreams,” with Kevin Costner. After building a baseball field in his corn crop, the now deceased players of the Chicago White Sox, who had been banned for gambling, appear to play. But, the real reason he is inspired to build the field is his father comes to play as a young man and former ballplayer. When he asks his dad for a game of catch, it is a very emotional for me as I used to play catch with my father.

While these movies are dramatically poignant, we came across an old cassette tape of my father-in-law singing. Before he passed in 1997, he used to play guitar and sing in clubs, bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, church, senior living centers, etc. So, we just sat and listened to his crooning, as he performed old standards from the 1940 – 60s. It was a treat for my wife and me. One of my favorite memories is returning from New York at night, with him and my mother-in-law singing old songs like these while riding in the back seat.

Cherish your memories, especially when they unexpectedly pop up. Sometimes, all it takes is a prompt – a song, a movie clip, an old friend, or an old piece of clothing – to flush out the memories.

We bought a zoo – worth the watch

Our blogging friend Holly posted a poem about being courageous, which reminded me of a quote from the movie “We bought a zoo.” The quote is from the father, played by Matt Damon, when he passed on this piece of wisdom to his children, “All you need is twenty seconds of courage.”

But, I am getting ahead of myself. The movie also stars Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning, Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford, Stephanie Szostak and a host of others. It is about the true story of a widowed father buying a run down, small zoo in a bold attempt to reconnect with his kids after they lost their mother.

It is a feel good movie about relationships between families, friends, colleagues and animals. It is peppered with poignant scenes, which I will forego to avoid spoiling it for others.

It is one of those movies I could watch again as there are multitude of interesting characters. The brother, played by Thomas Hayden Church, is the appointed steward of his brother’s wife’s money, as she knew of her husband impulsive behavior. Hayden Smith usually plays a comic foil, so it is a different kind of role for him as he is a conscience to Damon’s character.

Twenty seconds of courage plays a pivotal role in the movie. In essence, the key to making any kind of change is summoning up twenty seconds to act on it. If you can do that, the path forward will open or you will at least have an answer if it does not.

Give it a chance if you have not seen in it. If you have, let me know what you think. For those who have not, you may want to steer clear of the comments to avoid plot reveals.