Z is for Zorba the Greek

For this year’s A-To-Z Challenge, my theme is MOVIES. I will be working my way through the alphabet during the month of April with movie titles and short blurbs about each movie. Today’s movie, the last one in this year’s challenge, is “Zorba the Greek.”

“Zorba the Greek” was a 1964 comedy-drama film written, produced, edited, and directed by Greek Cypriot filmmaker Michael Cacoyannis. It starred Anthony Quinn, Alan Bates, Lila Kedrova, Irene Papas, and Sotiris Moustakas. The film was based on the 1946 novel The Life And Times Of Alexis Zorba by Nikos Kazantzakis.

“Zorba the Greek” was a critical and commercial success, grossing over nine-times its production budget at the U.S. box office alone. At the 37th Academy Awards, the film won awards for Best Supporting Actress (Kedrova), Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction. Other nominations included Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Anthony Quinn, whose performance has been cited as one of the most iconic in film history.

The film focused on a young well-dressed, introverted English writer of Anglo-Greek origins, Basil (Alan Bates), with a case of writer’s block. He returned to his Greek roots when he learned he’d inherited an old lignite mine from his Greek father. Basil is met upon his arrival in Greece by Alexis Zorba (Anthony Quinn), an eccentric, crude, exuberant, and impulsive Greek peasant. Basil decided to take Zorba with him to Crete on a whim. Zorba promised to teach Basil about mining and how to be a real Greek and have a zest for life just by letting himself go using Greek culture to pursue wine, women, and song.

In Crete, in the poor rural village, Basil was introduced to the lovely widow (Irene Papas), the love object of everyone on the island. With Zorba’s help, Basil got over his shyness and made love to her. Meanwhile, Zorba took up with the woman who ran their hotel (Lila Kedrova). When things go wrong on Crete, Zorba told Basil that there’s a silver lining in all this misery and that is to learn to live with the inescapable suffering that is part of life and, therefore, when things go well one can truly taste life’s sweetness. The answer to combating life’s downward turns is doing Zorba’s unique Greek dance, as Basil learns to accept the things in life he can’t control and to enjoy life even under the most trying circumstances.

“Zorba the Greek” is a paean to life in all its diverse aspects, ranging from the farcical to the tragic, as epitomized by the lusty title character, Zorba, a wise and aging peasant, a free soul who is totally committed to life no matter what it holds.

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Y is for Young Frankenstein

For this year’s A-To-Z Challenge, my theme is MOVIES. I will be working my way through the alphabet during the month of April with movie titles and short blurbs about each movie. Today’s movie is “Young Frankenstein.”

“Young Frankenstein” is, arguably my favorite movie. Certainly my favorite comedy movie. It was a 1974 American comedy/horror film directed by Mel Brooks. The screenplay was co-written by Brooks and Gene Wilder. Wilder also starred in the lead role as the title character, a descendant of the infamous Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and Peter Boyle as the monster. The film co-starred Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Richard Haydn, and Gene Hackman.

The film is considered to be one of writer-producer-director Mel Brooks’ best films. It’s a nostalgic, hilarious spoof-tribute to classic horror films. “Young Frankenstein” was, like many of Brooks’ films, filled with physical gags, terrible puns, one-liners, and shattered taboos. Old-style wipes, fades to black and iris shots were numerous throughout the movie.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is the grandson of the infamous Baron Von Frankenstein. But he wants to distance himself from this legacy, going so far as to insisting that his name be pronounced “Fronk-en-steen.” After telling his students at an American university that there is no way to generate life after nerves are severed and declaring that the work of his grandfather was “doodoo,” he is confronted and informed by Herr Falkstein (Richard Haydn) that he has inherited his family’s Transylvania estate and must travel there immediately.

Upon his arrival, Dr. Frankenstein meets Igor, (Marty Feldman), pronounced “Eye-gore,” his hunchback servant, and Inga (Teri Garr), his beautiful assistant. At the castle, he meets the frightening housekeeper, Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman). Soon, Dr. Frankenstein discovers a secret entrance into his grandfather’s laboratory, where he finds a book written by his grandfather entitled, How I Did It, by Victor Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein, along with his sidekicks, and driven by a curiosity about his grandfather’s work, begins to experiment with creating life. Stealing the body of a hanged criminal (Peter Boyle), Dr. Frankenstein begins to recreate and improve upon his grandfather’s legacy. Igor, entrusted with the task of procuring the brain of a famed historian, drops the container holding the brain, damaging it beyond use. Instead, he takes the abnormal brain, assumed to be the brain of a criminal. Dr. Frankenstein is successful in his experiment and “The Monster” is brought to life.

Hilarity ensues as Dr. Frankenstein and his sidekicks, along with Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars), and a group of angry villagers, trying to contain “The Monster” who only wants to be loved, hates being mocked, and will only be soothed by the melancholy music of the violin. All ends well as Dr. Frankenstein succeeds with a partial “transference” meant to switch the brains of himself and “The Monster” in order to make “The Monster” more human. Dr. Frankenstein then marries Inga, and “The Monster” marries Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), Dr. Frankenstein’s ex-fiancé.

A bit of trivia. You’re heard of the band Aerosmith, right? Well, band member Joe Perry came up with the guitar riff for a song and the band developed the track, but four days later Steven Tyler still didn’t have any lyrics for the song. With no lyrics forthcoming, they considered dumping the track, but inspiration struck when the band (minus Tyler and Perry) took a break and went for a walk around New York City, where they were recording.

“Young Frankenstein” was playing in Times Square, so they went to see it. There is a famous scene in the movie where Igor tells Dr. Frankenstein to “Walk This Way,” meaning to follow him. Dr. Frankenstein imitates Igor’s walk, which the band thought was hilarious. When they saw Tyler the next day, they informed him that the title of the song would be “Walk This Way.” Other than the title of the song, though, it and the movie had nothing in common.

Interesting factoid: “Young Frankenstein” was filmed in the same castle and with the same props and lab equipment (created and loaned by property manager Ken Strickfaden) as the original James Whale 1931 horror film “Frankenstein.”

If you’ve never seen this movie, and if you like to laugh, I highly recommend watching it. I promise you won’t regret it.

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X is for Xanadu

For this year’s A-To-Z Challenge, my theme is MOVIES. I will be working my way through the alphabet during the month of April with movie titles and short blurbs about each movie. Today’s movie is “Xanadu.”

“Xanadu” is the only movie, of all 26 I will have highlighted in this series, that I’ve never seen. When it comes to movies, X is not an easy letter. Unless you go with one of the many “X-Men“ films or the movie that was based upon the TV show, “The X-Files,” there ain’t a whole lot to choose from. Anyway, let us proceed.

“Xanadu” was a 1980 American musical fantasy film written by Richard Christian Danus and Marc Reid Rubel, and directed by Robert Greenwald. It starred Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beck, and Gene Kelly in his final film role.

“Xanadu” was a major box office disappointment, and earned scorching negative critical reviews. For example, when the movie first came out, film critic Roger Ebert wasn’t a fan. He said that, “‘Xanadu’ is a mushy and limp musical fantasy, so insubstantial it keeps evaporating before our eyes.” According to Wikipedia, the movie was an inspiration for the creation of the Golden Raspberry Awards to recognize the worst films of the year.

But where the film was a bust, the soundtrack album became a huge commercial success around the world. It was certified double platinum in the United States. The song “Magic” was a U.S. number one hit for Newton-John, and the title track (by Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra) reached number one in the United Kingdom and several other countries around the world.

Olivia Newton-John stars as Kira, one of the nine muses of Ancient Greece. Kira is sent to Earth (via an outdoor mural depicting the mythological sisters) to inspire Sonny Malone (Michael Beck). Sonny is a talented but discouraged freelance artist. Unable to make a go of it on his own, Sonny reluctantly returns to a record company, where he feels trapped painting album covers. Sonny cannot find enthusiasm for anything anymore, especially his work. But he became instantly attracted to Kira, an anonymous woman randomly photographed in the background of one of his assignments. Kira is also on the scene to motivate Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly), an aging, well-to-do entrepreneur who she might have possibly inspired decades ago when he was a Big Band musician. After his heart was broken, Danny hung up his clarinet and became comfortable managing his family’s construction business. With Kira’s help (and much dancing, singing, and roller-skating along the way), Sonny and Danny befriend one another and decide to partner up and construct “Xanadu,” a disco/roller-skating club.

Interestingly, the movie has apparently become a bit of a cult classic for the way it mixes the storyline from an old-fashioned 1940s fantasy with modern aesthetics featuring late 1970s and early 1980s rock and pop music on the soundtrack.

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V is for Vertigo

For this year’s A-To-Z Challenge, my theme is MOVIES. I will be working my way through the alphabet during the month of April with movie titles and short blurbs about each movie. Today’s movie is “Vertigo.”

No one should leave out Alfred Hitchcock when it comes to discussing great films, and “Vertigo” is certainly a great Hitchcock thriller to highlight. This was a 1958 American film noir psychological thriller directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock. The story was based on the 1954 novel D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Boileau-Narcejac. The screenplay was written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor. It starred Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Tom Helmore.

The film received a lukewarm reception upon its release, but is now considered to be one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s most complex movies and is commonly ranked among the greatest movies ever made.

Detective John (“Scottie”) Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) has retired from the San Francisco police force because he developed a paralyzing fear of heights and vertigo after a rooftop chase that resulted in a colleague’s death. He comes out of retirement, however, at the behest of Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), a college friend who wants Scottie to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), and ascertain what’s behind her peculiar behavior.

Scottie unexpectedly falls in love with Madeleine, only to witness her suicide. Devastated by her death, Scottie later encounters Judy Barton (also played by Novak) and obsessively remakes her in the image of the dead Madeleine. However, Scottie does not realize that Judy already knows him because she had pretended to be Madeleine as a ruse concocted by Elster to cover up his wife’s murder.

That’s about all I can say about the plot without giving away too much.

In “Vertigo,” Stewart played, arguably, the most complicated role of his career, abandoning his all-American persona to portray a man driven to the edge of insanity by his obsession with a woman he fears he can never have. Novak is plays the classic Hitchcockian icy blonde. Vertigo is considered Hitchcock’s most personal film, with Scottie’s obsessive remaking of Judy into the character of Madeleine being a metaphor for Hitchcock’s direction of the lead actresses in his films.

Vertigo is also noted for its groundbreaking camera technique, the dolly zoom, an in-camera effect that distorts perspective to create disorientation, to convey Scottie’s acrophobia. As a result of its use in this film, the effect is often referred to as “the Vertigo effect.”

In 1989, “Vertigo” was one of the first 25 films selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

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U is for The Usual Suspects

For this year’s A-To-Z Challenge, my theme is MOVIES. I will be working my way through the alphabet during the month of April with movie titles and short blurbs about each movie. Today’s movie is “The Usual Suspects.”

“The Usual Suspects” was a 1995 mystery thriller film directed by Bryan Singer and written by Christopher McQuarrie. It started an ensemble cast of Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio del Toro, Kevin Pollak, Chazz Palminteri, Pete Postlethwaite, and Kevin Spacey.

The film was first shown at competition at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival and was initially released in a few theaters. After receiving favorable reviews, it was eventually given a wider release. McQuarrie won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and Spacey won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. The Writers Guild of America ranked the film as having the 35th greatest screenplay of all time.

Told through the interview of one Verbal Kint (Spacey), a conman with cerebral palsy, The Usual Suspects followed a group of five men who were called by the police to participate in a line-up for the hijacking of a truck. When they were later released, they worked together to pull a heist as revenge on the NYPD. That heist resulted in the men netting millions of dollars in emeralds and getting over fifty cops arrested.

Their criminal antics eventually got them the attention of the infamous Keyser Soze, a mythic crime lord who hired them to pull off a multi-million dollar heist that ended with an explosion in the Port of Los Angeles. Most of the group perished, and Verbal Kint, who was one of only two survivors, was interviewed by the FBI. However, it turned out that Verbal Kint was not the man the FBI interviewer thought he was. I can’t say anything more without giving away the movie’s truly stunning climax.

I was captivated by this movie from beginning to end. I think you might be, too.

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