Category Archives: movies

Fighting Irish schmaltz: “Rudy” and “Knute Rockne All American”

When it comes to college football fandom, I’m not naturally rooted. My undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University, has a terrific mid-major basketball program, but for decades its football team has mostly struggled. My law school alma mater, New York University, doesn’t even have a football team, though it once was quite prominent in the sport during the 1920s and 1930s.

And so on Saturdays during the fall, I often fall back on my northwest Indiana origins, when I became a Notre Dame football fan. I may have no educational or faith connection to Notre Dame, but I can’t help it, I am drawn to its football team. (I fully understand that hating on the Fighting Irish is a time-honored football tradition in itself. Those who cannot bear to read this rest of this post are hereby given permission to click to something else.)

Two movies, “Rudy” and “Knute Rockne All American,” capture the mystique and mythology of Notre Dame football, augmented by forms of dramatic license inherent in most sports flicks. The Urban Dictionary defines “schmaltz” as “a work of art that is excessively sentimental, sappy or cheesy.” Both films qualify for in that category. But that’s okay, I enjoy both of them, perhaps because of — not in spite of — their soggy stories.

Rudy” (1993) is based on the true story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, a scrappy, undersized blue-collar kid who dreamed of playing for Notre Dame, set in the late 60s through mid-70s. The movie portrays his dogged determination in chasing that dream, fueled by numerous references to the storied traditions of the University and its football team. As befits your basic sports story, there are struggles to overcome along the way.

It is often quipped that “Rudy” is one of those sports movies that makes it okay for guys to cry. Personally, it doesn’t unleash the tear ducts for me, but it’s a heartwarming story nonetheless. Sean Astin makes for a likable, convincing Rudy, and the football scenes are decent. One might quarrel with some of the story twists inserted for cheap effect — the Notre Dame head coach at the time, Dan Devine, certainly has reason to be miffed at how he’s portrayed — but let’s remember that this is a Hollywood movie, not an art house film.

The movie also blows a kiss to Notre Dame and its Catholic traditions. A feature accompanying the DVD tells us that this was the first movie filmed on campus since (see below!) “Knute Rockne, All American.”

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Knute Rockne All American” (1940) is a paean to Notre Dame head coach and player Knute Rockne, the most revered figure in Fighting Irish football history. Rockne entered Notre Dame as a student at the age of 22, wanting to play football. As a member of the 1913 Irish squad, he teamed up with quarterback Gus Dorais to form the first potent forward passing combination in the history of the game.

After graduation, Rockne stayed on as a chemistry instructor and assistant football coach, eventually giving up a promising science career to become the school’s head coach. During the late 1910s and through the 1920s, he built America’s most successful college football program, leading the Irish to multiple national championships and becoming a national figure along the way.

If “Rudy” regards its main subject sentimentally, then “Knute Rockne All American” is an all out love letter to its protagonist, the University, and the sport of football. War clouds were hovering over America when the movie was filmed and released, and it appears to be no accident that it ties together football, faith, manhood, and patriotism as a thematic passage.

The movie stars Pat O’Brien as Rockne and a young Ronald Reagan as legendary Notre Dame football player George Gipp.

 

Classic movie report: August 2015

I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. This month I dug back to 1976 for a couple of really solid films.

Aces High (1976) (3 stars out of 4)

Although I’m a big fan of historical dramas, I somehow managed to miss Aces High until now. It’s an underrated war movie about British fighter pilots during the First World War. Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Plummer, Peter Firth, and Simon Ward are the stars of an ensemble cast.

The movie features very good aerial scenes (no irritating CGI here) and interesting if sometimes cliched personal dramas. This film was a pleasant surprise, a random streaming discovery from Netflix. It stands well above two more recent WWI aviator movies, Flyboys (2006) and The Red Baron (2008).

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The Omen (1976) (3.5 stars)

The Omen is one of my long-time favorites, a movie that first sent chills up my spine back in high school and continues to do so. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick co-star as the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain and his wife. They have a son, and let’s just say that he’s a young man of Biblical qualities, and not the good kind.

Yup, there are some plot implausibilities that are stretches even for horror film. But it delivers on goosebumps. Suffice it to say that after watching The Omen, you’ll be wary of surprise nannies, little boys with a head of steam, and priests bearing bad news.

Those eminently re-watchable movies

Here is one of those countless Internet memes posted to Facebook, but it grabbed my attention because I immediately started making my list.

These 25 are pretty much off the top of my head, in no particular order:

  • Twister
  • Animal House
  • Singin’ in the Rain
  • In Harm’s Way
  • Gettysburg
  • Starship Troopers
  • The Horse Soldiers
  • WarGames
  • Von Ryan’s Express
  • Manhattan
  • The Patriot
  • The Producers
  • Airplane!
  • Sink the Bismarck!
  • Vertigo
  • Mindwalk
  • Grease
  • Master and Commander
  • The Sound of Music
  • The Shift
  • Patriot Games
  • All the President’s Men
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Jaws
  • Major League

It’s hardly an exhaustive list, but definitely representative. A mix of genuine classics and others that tend to fall in the good-but-not-great category. It is very short on foreign films and art house releases, reflecting my very middlebrow tastes.

What’s on your list?!?!

Classic movie report: July 2015

A film clip by the museum's co-founder, running on an old-style projector.

A film clip by the co-founder of the Third Man Museum in Vienna, running on an old-style projector.

I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. This month’s selections have a distinctly Austrian flavor to them, inspired by a week-long visit to Vienna this month to participate in a conference on law and mental health.

The Third Man (1949) (4 stars out of 4)

This is widely recognized as one of the all-time best movies, a story set in postwar Vienna, with Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, and Alida Valli in starring roles. IMDb neatly sums up the plot without giving anything away:

Pulp novelist Holly Martins travels to shadowy, postwar Vienna, only to find himself investigating the mysterious death of an old friend, black-market opportunist Harry Lime.

The other star is Vienna itself, largely shorn of its glorious beauty and instead portrayed as city of intrigue and recovery in the years following the Second World War.

My first sightseeing visit in Vienna was not to an art museum or classical music venue, but rather the small Third Man Museum, dedicated to the movie and life in postwar Vienna. It was time very well spent. Here are some photos from the museum:

Still shots and memorabilia from the movie.

Still shots and memorabilia from the movie.

If you know the movie, you know what this is about!

If you know the movie, then you know what this is about!

Wonderful zither concert by Viennese musician Cornelia Mayer…again, if you know the movie, you know this instrument!

Wonderful zither concert by Viennese musician Cornelia Mayer…again, if you know the movie, then you know this instrument!

The Sound of Music (1965) (4 stars)

This beloved, iconic movie musical, set in pre-war Salzburg, is about as wide a contrast from The Third Man‘s depiction of Austria as one could imagine. Starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, the renowned classic is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its release. In addition to offering songs that are firmly embedded in our popular culture, the film makes maximum use of the beauties of Salzburg.

Back in 1981, after finishing a semester abroad program in England, I made a quick tour of the European continent, and Salzburg was one of my stops. Even though at the time I had never seen the movie, I allowed myself to get dragged onto The Sound of Music bus tour by one of my traveling companions. While she was thrilled at every recognizable location from the movie, I just kept taking pictures, figuring that someday I’d watch the movie and then flip back to my photos to compare. I’m glad I did.

Here are some of those old snapshots.

Top: The famous gazebo. Bottom: The road where the Von Trapp kids are up in the trees.

Top: The famous gazebo. Bottom: The road where the Von Trapp kids are up in the trees.

Top: The Von Trapp family home. Bottom: The cemetery where they're hiding.

Top: The Von Trapp family home. Bottom: The cemetery in the abbey.

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Photos: Third Man Museum (DY, 2015); Salzburg (DY, 1981).

Classic movie report: June 2015

I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. Despite competition from the NBA and NHL finals, I was able to work in two films that I’m happy to share with you here. One is a genuine classic. The other is so bad that, in its own perverse way, it is so good.

Jaws (1975) (4 stars out of 4)

What can one say about this iconic film about killer Great White shark that wreaks havoc along the beaches of a New England resort town? Steven Spielberg’s classic, now marking its 40th anniversary, is an eminently re-watchable movie. Even if you know what’s coming, it’s worth another viewing. Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss starred in one of the all-time great summer movies.

Let me add that the shark remains one intimidating dude, rendered in the days before CGI and other computerized enhancements. The underwater scene with Richard Dreyfuss ranks among the scariest man vs. sea beast scenes ever filmed.

Red Dawn (1984) (unrateable)

The cast list for this jingoistic, Cold War-era flick may cause you to wonder how future movie and TV stars like Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, and Jennifer Grey ever got wrangled into it.

I’ll offer a spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t watched it, but you may as well read this anyway. The movie opens with students at a high school located in a small Colorado town. They look out the classroom window to see paratroopers landing on the ground. Lots of them, and they’re not from the land of Yankee Doodle Dandy. Rather, they’re vicious, heartless Soviet and Cuban soldiers ordered to kill just about everyone in sight, including civilians.

A group of the high school kids manages to escape the scene and head for the hills, where they eventually train themselves to become a crack guerrilla outfit, outsmarting the Commies at every turn…at least for a while.

I won’t go into further detail — I don’t want to ruin the fun if you’ve never seen this masterpiece of bad writing and not-so-great acting.  (Please don’t blame me if you watch the movie and the phrase “let it turn, let it turn” runs through your head over and again.) It also helps to suspend disbelief over how enemy planes could’ve pierced through the American air defense system and barreled into the nation’s heartland without warning.

Flaws aside, Red Dawn reflected some of the genuine Cold War fears and hysteria of the era. I remember enjoying it when I saw it at the theatre way back in ’84, and I have to say I got a kick out of it this past week as well. Let it turn, let it turn.

Classic movie report: May 2015

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I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. It has been a very busy month, so I have only one selection to review, but in honor of the college commencement season, it’s a classic:

Animal House (1978) (4 stars out of 4)

This wonderfully tasteless comedy about the debauched Delta fraternity at (thankfully fictional) Faber College during the early 60s ranks as one of my favorite movies ever. I watch it roughly every year — including this past weekend — and every time it cracks me up. It is so full of hilarious lines and scenes, I cannot even begin to list them out. (The IMDb site has collected many of the best quotes here.)

Animal House launched John Belushi as a major star, playing deranged Delta frat member John Blutarsky. Other favorite cast members of mine include Tom Hulce (as Larry Kroger), Stephen Furst (Kent Dorfman), James Widdoes (Eric Hoover), Tim Matheson (Eric Stratton), Karen Allen (Katy), Bruce McGill (“D Day”), John Vernon (Dean Wormer), Verna Bloom (Marion Wormer), Kevin Bacon (Chip Diller), and Mark Metcalf (Doug Neidermeyer).

Director John Landis and writers Harold Ramis, Doug Kenney, and Chris Miller did brilliant work here.

The extras included in the “Double Secret Probation” DVD edition are worth checking out as well. They include a reunion video that contains some great stories about the making of the movie. They obviously had a lot of fun on this production. Many of the cast members apparently lived their roles off screen as well, including a lot of partying.

I was in college when the movie was released, and let’s just say that it had a massive influence on campus life at schools across the country, for better or worse (usually the latter). Fraternity life, inspired by the movie, often went haywire, and toga parties became all the rage.

I was a hardcore independent, more likely to be lobbing criticisms at frat behavior from my perch as a campus newspaper reporter and editor than joining in on the hijinks, so perhaps it is odd that I find this movie to be so uncontrollably funny. Animal House manages to skirt around some of the darker excesses of fraternity life during the era, and it puts a hilarious spin on the rest of it.

Classic movie report: April 2015

I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. Here are my two selections for April:

WarGames (1983) (3.5 stars out of 4)

WarGames may not be a great movie, but I find it so eminently entertaining and re-watchable that I have to give it 3.5 stars.

Matthew Broderick stars as David Lightman, a young computer maven and high school student who manages to hack into the U.S. Defense Department’s new super computer. In doing so, he engages its artificial intelligence in a way that almost causes a nuclear war. Ally Sheedy plays his adorable sidekick, Jennifer Mack, and the two become partners in crime.

The chief adults in the movie are Dabney Coleman as Dr. John McKittrick, the computer expert who persuaded the government to adopt the new mainframe, and John Wood as Dr. Stephen Falken, a withdrawn scientist whose theories become central to the story.

WarGames has its serious side. On occasion it has been cited by scholars as an excellent pop culture depiction of how Cold War mentalities and an uncritical worship of the “wisdom” of computer technology could lead us down a disastrous path.

But it’s also a ton of fun. Broderick and Sheedy are well-paired in this movie, and their scenes together include some hilarious high school moments and (now) nostalgic depictions of early personal computing and video games.

For me it pushes nostalgia buttons as well. I first saw WarGames when it was at the movie theaters in the summer of 1983. It was right after my first year of law school, and I was living in one of the law school dorms. In consultation with a couple of friends, we picked it out of the Village Voice listings and decided to give it try. I enjoyed it from the opening scenes, and I’ve watched it many times since then.

 

Gallipoli (1981) (3.5 stars)

Mel Gibson and Mark Lee co-star as young men from Western Australia who enlist in the Australian Army during the First World War. They find themselves deployed to the Ottoman Empire (now modern day Turkey), as part of the Allied Gallipoli Campaign in 1915.

The film starts as something of a buddy movie with some 80s-style artistry, but by the time the climactic battle scenes arrive, it is a story of the terrors of trench warfare. It also reinforces a common First World War theme of utter futility, with senior officers repeatedly ordering their troops to go “over the top” in charges met by murderous machine gun fire.

Gallipoli isn’t the best of the WWI movies, but it belongs on a list of “should watch” films about the war, including the classic All Quiet on the Western Front and the excellent Paths of Glory.

In terms of 20th century history, I relate more strongly to the Second World War than to the First, but that gap is closing as I learn more about the Great War during this period of centennial observation (1914-18). It is a fascinating historical story, one infused with a haunting sense of loss due to the brutality of trench warfare, as well as the knowledge that the terms of surrender eventually imposed on Germany would help to fuel the rise of Nazism in the decades to come.

Classic movie report: March 2015

From "The Big Parade"

From “The Big Parade” (l to r): Tom O’Brien as Bull, John Gilbert as James Apperson, and Karl Dane as Slim

I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. This month, the weather has warmed up slightly, and much of my limited TV time has been devoted to great dramas such as Downton Abbey and The Americans, but here are two oldies that I was able to sneak in:

The Big Parade (1925) (4 stars out of 4)

I don’t know how this one escaped my attention for all these years. King Vidor directed this 1925 silent classic starring John Gilbert as James Apperson, the son of a wealthy American family who joins the Army when the U.S. enters the First World War. It’s an excellent film that mixes humor, romance, drama, and tragedy.

Renee Adoree and John Gilbert

Renee Adoree (Melisande) and John Gilbert (James)

While deployed in France, Apperson meets a village farm girl, Melisande. Their wartime romance captures well how the silent movies could tell a story.

Part of the Big Parade

Part of the Big Parade

The “big parade” is not referring to a procession featuring the victorious heroes. Rather, it’s the march of men and war materiel going to and from the front. And as these photos attest, the ground war would be joined by a new weapon of destruction, the airplane.

Welcome to the 20th century

Welcome to the 20th century

Strategic Air Command (1955) (3 stars out of 4)

Jimmy Stewart stars as an aging major league baseball star and a WWII veteran pilot who is called back into active duty with the Air Force to help develop America’s post-war bomber command. June Allyson plays his treacly sweet wife. It’s more of an interesting technicolor artifact than a genuine classic, reflecting a 50s Hollywood take on the Cold War. The perceived need for strategic bombing capacity helps to drive the story, but oddly there’s nary a mention of the Soviet Union or any other communist nation.

The flight scenes are the highlight of the movie. Aircraft geeks may especially enjoy watching the B-36 bomber, a slim, long plane with a huge wing span, powered by six propellers and four retrofitted jet engines. The B-36 preceded the B-52 as America’s primary long-range bomber, which happened to arrive on the scene the year the movie was released.

The flight scenes provide the drama, for the acting among the main characters is pretty stiff, even given that we’re talking about a story set in the military. For Stewart, this role somewhat reprised real life. He was an American bomber pilot during the Second World War.

Screen shot from "Strategic Air Command," a B-36 bomber

From “Strategic Air Command,” a B-36 bomber

(All screen shots by DY, 2015) 

“Airplane!” is 35 years old

Airplane!, the gut busting, hilarious send-up of airplane disaster movies, turns 35 this year. For a long list of reasons, I’m not sure that a similar kind of movie could be made now, but especially for Gen Jonesers who grew up with the movies and television shows poked at and parodied in the film, it doesn’t get any funnier.

The IMDb.com profile gives you a list of the awesome cast, reader reviews, a list of classic quotes from the movie, and more.

In a great interview with co-producer David Zucker conducted by Yahoo’s Jordan Zakarin, we learn some of the backstories that led to the casting of the movie, including that of Peter Graves as Captain Oveur :

Peter Graves famously didn’t want to play the aspiring-pedophile pilot at first. Was he reluctant to deliver lines like “Have you ever seen a grown man naked”?

Peter Graves’s reaction [to the script] was, “This is the most disgusting piece of garbage I’ve ever read.” His wife and his daughter read it and they laughed all the way through and they said, “Dad, you have to do it.” So he was ready to do it when we shot.

Across the pond

My first experience of watching Airplane! was odd and memorable. It was the spring of 1981, and I was spending my final undergraduate semester at Valparaiso University’s Cambridge, England, study abroad center. I went with a group of fellow VU students to a local movie theatre. Amidst a somewhat sparsely attended screening, we were the only ones laughing uncontrollably throughout, while the rest of the (presumably British) audience chuckled politely on occasion.

How could our British moviegoers have understood how LOL funny this was! If you’re not familiar with Barbara Billingsley’s role as suburban housewife June Cleaver in the TV sitcom Leave It to Beaver, then you have no idea how hilarious it is to listen to her speaking jive to a couple of black passengers.

Of course, perhaps the Brits that night didn’t fully appreciate Airplane!‘s over-the-top, un-PC American-style humor, done in such rapid-fire, equal-opportunity target style that you don’t have time to become mortally offended.

I only know that my stomach was sore from laughing so hard.

Classic movie report: February 2015

Will they always have Paris?

Reading the bad news…will they always have Paris? (Photo: DY)

I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. Here are my three latest:

Casablanca (1942) (4+++ stars out of 4)

Have you ever watched a movie touted as one of the best of all time, only to conclude that it was good, but not great? That’s how I felt the first time I watched Casablanca many, many years ago, and that ho hum assessment caused me to put off watching it again until earlier this week, when PBS televised it.

Well folks, I now understand why this belongs on the short list of the greatest films of all time. I get it, I get it, I get it.

The cast, the acting, the script, the story, the location, the wartime setting, and the music…the music(!!!)…it all clicked for me. I now comprehend why Humphrey Bogart was so great. I now see why young Ingrid Bergman was one of the beauties of the era. And as for Dooley Wilson’s vocals and piano playing, let’s just say this isn’t an all-time great movie without him.

Plus, Casablanca is a historical time capsule. It was made during heart of the Second World War, when the final result was hardly assured. Rick and Ilsa’s Paris was still under Nazi occupation at that time!

Of all the gin joints......

“Of all the gin joints”…classic line, iconic scene (Photo: DY)

October Sky (1999) (3 stars)

This is about as recent as movies in this series of posts will get, but I can say that it’s got a heartwarming, old-fashioned quality to it, with a story grounded in an actual event. Four high school boys in a 1950s West Virginia coal mining town, spurred by news of Russia’s launching of the Sputnik rocket, set out to build a rocket of their own to compete in a science fair. I kept passing on this movie and finally gave it a chance. I’m glad that I did. A young Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, and Laura Dern are fine leads. The bonus features tell more of the feel-good story that inspired the movie.

The Unconquered (1947) (2 stars)

A Cecil B. DeMille production featuring Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard in a tale about mid-18th century American colonists and Indians in what was then the Western frontier (the region around modern day Pittsburgh). Given DeMille’s reputation for producing epic pictures, I thought I’d check out one of his lesser known movies. It embraced white man vs. red man stereotypes so common in movies of the era, but I expected that. I found the story, overall, to be uneven and lacking dramatic pull.

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