AFI #65: The African Queen

Humphrey Bogart may be the most well-known and revered actor in American film history, but in his illustrious career he only won one Academy Award. Some might say he was a “popular” actor but not necessarily a great actor — to them I say phooey! He starred in one of my top 10 favorite films of all time — Casablanca — and his portrayal of Rick Blaine has been immortalized. Throw in memorable roles in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo…and on and on…he is one of the greatest actors ever. It seems strange then that he finally won an Oscar for playing a drunk and none too bright boat captain in The African Queen, made just a few years before his early death at age 58.

For co-star Katharine Hepburn, her portrayal as the tightly wound church spinster Rose Sayer was one of her least rewarded roles, having won four Best Actress Oscars in her career (On Golden Pond, The Lion in Winter, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Morning Glory). She did get nominated for The African Queen but lost the Best Actress nod to Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire. By the way, for my money Ms. Hepburn was never better than in The Philadelphia Story, another of my all-time top 10 favorites.

For me The African Queen is simply a vehicle for the two greatest actors of their generation. To be honest, if the film starred anyone else it wouldn’t have made the cut. It’s a bit corny and unbelievable and both Bogart and Hepburn are past their respective primes. But it’s Bogie and Hepburn so you have to forgive the silly plot and the ridiculous love story. What makes the film great is the play between the two icons — they each play over-the-top characters and together they make the film worthwhile. In fact, there are very few scenes in the film that are not simply Bogart and Hepburn together.  There are only nine other actors credited for acting in the film! The rest are African extras.

Next: Network

How to Feel Alive

For obvious reasons I have been thinking a lot about life these days, and this week I had two totally unrelated experiences I’d like to share. Just observations…no epiphanies here.

On Tuesday morning I was stuck in traffic on I-10 and as I’m sitting there listening to music and enjoying the morning the car next to me got slammed into by the car behind it. It was not a soft bump…the car that did the plowing into was smashed pretty good. The guy in the car that got hit was rightfully pissed, but a couple of things came to mind as I sped off (everyone was fine by the way). Mainly I thought how fucking random life is. I was inches away from getting my new car rear-ended, but it happened to the guy next to me instead. At the same time, the accident happened right in front of a highway patrolman who was off to the side of the diamond lane waiting to ticket solo drivers. The guy who got hit simply rolled down his window and called to the cop and within minutes I’m sure they were safely off to the shoulder. Crazy how things like that happen.

Last night on the flight home from San Francisco I was reading Greg Graffin’s book Anarchy Evolution. For those of you who don’t know who Greg is, he’s the lead singer of a punk band called Bad Religion and he also happens to have a PhD from Cornell and teaches evolutionary biology at UCLA when he’s not touring. The connection to the car wreck is that one of the chapters I read on the plane last night was about how natural selection alone is not the only thing that influences evolution — there’s a crap load of plain old luck involved. Luck like not getting hit by that car. Luck like surviving a heart attack (or “luck” in even having a heart attack). I wouldn’t call it fate, and I definitely don’t believe it’s part of some grand design…you can only make so many choices yet some things are left to chance. I couldn’t have planned for my heart attack any more than the guy in the car couldn’t have planned to get rear ended. As Mike Tyson once famously said about his opponents in the ring — everyone has a plan until they get hit.

I think the point for me in all of this is to not over-think things. One day you’re driving down the freeway minding your own business and some idiot smashes into you. One day a co-worker quits and you get a promotion. One day you run into an old friend on the city streets of a town you’re visiting. One day you have a heart attack. You never know what life has in store.

The other thing that is floating around in my brain this morning is how alive I felt in San Francisco this week. Yesterday morning I was sitting in Starbucks having a bowl of oatmeal and a latte and I sat there quietly watching all of the people coming and going. Everyone was in a rush and zipping around on their way to work…it was surreal to sit there calmly observing. A little later I was walking down Market Street on the way to the office finishing my latte and I was in no real rush to get to the office. But the street was buzzing with energy. People running to catch buses, folks climbing up the stairs from the BART station, people walking briskly to work in all directions. It was a beautiful morning and I just took it all in and I felt totally alive. It was like I was part of some larger organism called The City and we were all connected. It must be amazing to live in a big city like San Francisco and experience that every day. I wonder if people realize how much energy is all around them. I doubt it…but I highly recommend every so often simply soaking in everything that is going on around you — it’s life affirming! That being said, I like living in suburban Phoenix. But it’s sure fun to visit the big city once in a while to feel that rush of excitement.

AFI #66: Raiders of the Lost Ark

It was June 1981 and I had just gotten out of school for the summer. Ninth grade was behind me and I was moving to a new school for high school following the summer. I was looking forward to more than two months of riding my bike, going to the beach and just hanging out. Of course, I was also looking forward to summer blockbuster movies. That summer was stellar for films, especially for a 14-year-old. Clash of the Titans. Superman II. Cannonball Run. Stripes. For Your Eyes Only. Escape From New York. Arthur. Heavy Metal. An American Werewolf in London. Even Zorro the Gay Blade! I saw them all and more…but summer 1981 will always be about one film — Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It was the dawn of the summer blockbuster. The year before Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back took in $290,271,960 in the U.S. In 1982 E.T. raked in $435,110,554. In 1983 Return of the Jedi brought in $309,205,079. Prior to 1980 only Jaws ($260,000,000) and Star Wars ($460,998,007) had ever taken in those kinds of numbers. Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas had changed the game forever. You may have a favorite from these great summer blockbusters, but mine was, and still is, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Indiana Jones was the perfect hero for a young teenager. He was smart, capable of amazing physical feats, had a wicked sense of humor and of course the ladies loved him. Not only that, he was fighting the Nazis! This film made Harrison Ford the biggest movie star in the world. Sure, he was Han Solo, but he was just a supporting character in that. In Raiders of the Lost Ark he was the leading man and action hero.

What I love so much about the film is that it’s non-stop action from the moment it begins. The first scene where he tries to steal the idol from the natives is one of the most memorable action sequences ever filmed and the scene with the boulder rolling after him has become iconic. Indiana Jones made archaeology exciting, which let’s be honest is not an easy thing to do. Another iconic scene is when Indy is chasing the ark and is jumping back and forth between the Nazi trucks trying to steal the truck from the driver. When he loses his grip off the front of the truck but slides under and hangs on by his whip it’s pure Hollywood. And of course, the final scene with the ark getting lost in the rows and rows of boxes in that giant government warehouse…spot on political commentary. My favorite scene is when he comes face to face in Cairo with the huge guy with giant Arabian swords and instead of fighting him a just reaches down for his gun and shoots the guy. LOL.

For me Raiders of the Lost Ark is the ultimate adventure film, and while many have tried to imitate it none have captured the greatness of this Hollywood classic. It’s just as cool and exciting today as it was in 1981 and the proof is that my son and I watched it recently and he loves it too. I suspect sometime 20 years or so from now his kids will love it as well.

Next: The African Queen

Extremely Amazing and Incredibly Gifted

Earlier this week in my movie discussion group on Facebook we were asked what the best acting performance by an actor under 13 is that we’ve seen. Those mentioned included some wonderful performances including Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, Natalie Portman in The Professional, Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver and even Dakota Fanning in I Am Sam. I added Saoirse Ronan in Atonement. But that all changed for me today — I saw Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and witnessed a performance for the ages by 13-year-old Thomas Horn…in his first ever acting role…ever…not even a commercial or a school play. Simply amazing.

Yes, the subject matter of the film is difficult and heart-breaking. It’s the story of a boy who loses his father on 911 and who goes on a quest to find the lock to a key that he believes his father meant for him to find. When the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer came out in 2005 many people thought it was too soon for a 911 themed novel. Some are even questioning whether we are ready for it 10 years later. But Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is not a true story, it simply uses 911 as a backdrop for a powerful story of love and heartbreak. I’m sure there are people who were in New York on 911 who won’t see this film because it still hits too close to home, and I respect that, but they are going to miss one of the finest acting performances ever by an actor of any age.

I read the novel in 2007 and was a little disappointed quite honestly, most likely because I was so blown away be JSF’s first novel (Everything is Illuminated) that the follow up was sure to disappoint. I liked the novel, but didn’t love it and now I can say this is one of the rare occasions for me when I liked the film version better than the book. Rare indeed. The film is superb and I would certainly consider it among the best films of 2011. It’s hard to watch, but you can’t take your eyes off of Thomas Horn.

Horn has a very interesting life story himself. He was “discovered” when he was on Jeopardy during kid’s week and won $31,000. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close director Stephen Daldry ( The Reader, Billy Elliot, The Hours) had been looking at literally hundreds of kids for the part and when he saw Horn on Jeopardy he knew he found his Oskar Schell. The role called for a special kid, one who was quirky, maybe even borderline Asperger’s. I don’t know how much like Oskar Thomas is in real life, but he hit the role dead on. If you know any kids with Asperger’s or similar issues you know they are often brilliant, precocious and moody as hell. Horn gave us all of those moments in the film, some of which were so expressive they seemed real. The scene in which he has a mental breakdown was heart-wrenching yet so powerful that he should be nominated for an Oscar based on the one scene alone. I will say, if young Horn is not nominated for a best actor Oscar there is no point in watching the Academy Awards this year because they will be a fraud. The kid stole a film from two Academy Award winners (Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock) and Academy Award nominated actor Max Von Sydow. If George Clooney is the front runner for The Descendants (in which Clooney was very, very good) then Horn is a shoe in!


Three Months and Still Ticking

My blockage was in the left anterior descending coronary artery

Yesterday marked the 90-day anniversary of my heart attack which occurred on Oct. 15, 2011. I figured this is as good a time as any to give everyone an update on my condition, especially since I went to the cardiologist today. Here’s the latest:

  • I feel great. I am back to work full time, attending cardiac rehab twice per week, walking briskly 3-4 additional days per week, eating amazingly well (thanks in no small part to Leslie’s wonderful skills in the kitchen) and doing pretty well emotionally too.
  • At the time of my heart attack there were two main concerns — I developed a clot in the lower portion of my heart and there was muscle wall damage there as well. The good news from the cardiologist appointment today was that both of these have improved. The clot has shrunk considerably (the echocardiogram tech couldn’t even see it) and my heart function has improved as well.
  • Clots are common with heart attacks. The goal is to eliminate it, and to do that they put me on a series of drugs to thin my blood and lower my heart rate and blood pressure. The doc says another few months on the drugs and the clot should dissipate or be absorbed into the heart wall.
  • Heart function is measured by what is called an ejection fraction (EF). Basically it is the percentage of blood that’s pumped out of a filled ventricle with each heartbeat. A normal ejection fraction is anywhere from about 55 to 70. At the time of my heart attack the cardiologist estimated my EF to be around 35 and today it is closer to 45! An EF under 40 can be life threatening and may be a sign of heart failure, so the fact that mine went up so dramatically in just three months is a great sign. This improvement can be attributed to taking my meds, exercising and eating a low fat, low sodium diet.

So, what’s next? In mid-February I will be taking a stress test to see how my heart performs when my heart rate goes up. Since I have no other blockages and my stents have fixed the one I did have, I should be able to exercise vigorously going forward without any trouble and this test will show my doctor how my heart performs under duress. Even though I am exercising now with no trouble, my heart rate has remained low because of the drug therapy. I’d like to start increasing the intensity of my workouts so this will tell the doctor if that is ok. In March I have another appointment with my cardiologist to check my blood work (my cholesterol was around 70 in December…yes, 70, not 170!) and then a few weeks after that I’ll get another echo to see if the clot is gone and if my EF has gone up any more. I can have a very normal life with my EF at 45 but of course the closer to normal the better.

Physically I feel great. Psychologically I am doing good, but I still have bouts of anxiety although these are fewer and further between. The big mental part is wondering what the future holds and whether or not I will be able to do all the things I want to in life. Intellectually I know I will, but the anxiety can still get to me. It’s weird, but it hits at strange times like when I see a commercial on TV where someone is talking about retirement or when someone is working out really strenuously (damn you Gatorade!). I’m sure this will all get better over time, although I am seriously considering starting a local Meetup group for young heart attack victims to have some people to share stories with. It’s hard when all the patients in cardiac rehab are 20-30 years older than me! If you know anyone who might be interested in this kind of meetup group send them my way…

That’s it for now. Take care and thanks for listening!

AFI #67: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is about a train wreck. Well, okay, it’s about a husband and wife who seem to get off on verbally abusing each other, but it felt like a train wreck…the kind you don’t want to watch but something deep inside you makes you sneak a peek. The film is a big screen version of the Edward Albee 1963 Tony Award-winning play by the same name and it’s not a a comedy despite the play on words that it its title. The thing is you can’t really tell if the husband, George, or the wife, Martha, is the big bad wolf!

I wanted to dislike this film after the first 10 minutes, but I couldn’t seem to stop watching it and as it went on I took some sick pleasure in how abusive these people were to each other. Just when you think maybe their relationship is playful, the booze continues to pour and the repartee gets harsher and harsher. Damn…these two fucking hate each other. It’s one thing to verbally beat each other up by themselves, but they do it in front of a couple they don’t even know. Poor Nick and Honey just wanted to stop by the house for a quick drink, but they get dragged into this heavyweight bout and they barely survive. There is so much going on between George and Martha it’s hard to keep track, but the gist is that he is an assistant professor and she is the daughter of the college president and neither of them have lived up to each other’s expectations. Add to that their inability to conceive a child and a ridiculous amount of alcohol and what you get is a marriage that makes Frank and Estelle Costanza look like June and Ward Cleaver.

Did I like the film? I did, but sort of in the way you like a good crash at a car race. One thing that is certain though is that the acting is tremendous. All four characters were nominated for Oscars and both Elizabeth Taylor (Martha) and Sandy Dennis (Honey) took home a trophy. So much for the men, though Richard Burton was intense and brutal as George and a young George Segal was wonderful as Nick. This was Taylor’s second and last Academy Award for acting (she also won in 1961 for Butterfield 8), though she was nominated three other times. She’s a bit older and thicker around the middle in this film, but her performance is mesmerizing as the boozy Martha. I understand the film was also a bit risqué for 1966, but mostly for language. If you want to see people who have a co-dependence on each other’s cruelty this is the film for you.

Next up: Raiders of the Lost Ark