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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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#284 September 6, 2016

Matt writes: In his captivating 2005 memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, Gene Wilder reflected on his experience of making Mel Brooks' 1974 comic masterpiece, "Young Frankenstein." He likened making the picture to "taking a small breath of Heaven" each day, and that is what the film feels like every time I watch it. Wilder passed away on August 29th at age 83, leaving behind a timeless legacy that was celebrated at with Peter Sobczynski's beautiful obituary. Ebert himself gave four stars to several Wilder classics, including 1971's "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," 1974's "Blazing Saddles" and of course, 1974's "Young Frankenstein," a film that earned Wilder an Oscar nomination for the screenplay he co-authored with director Mel Brooks. In his review, Roger wrote that the film "shows artistic growth and a more sure-handed control of the material by a director who once seemed willing to do literally anything for a laugh. It’s more confident and less breathless."

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100 Great Moments in the Movies



Roger Ebert / April 23, 1995

For the centennial of cinema, 100 great moments from the movies:

Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind":

"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Buster Keaton standing perfectly still while the wall of a house falls over upon him; he is saved by being exactly placed for an open window.

Charlie Chaplin being recognized by the little blind girl in "City Lights."

The computer Hal 9000 reading lips, in "2001: a Space Odyssey."

The singing of "La Marseillaise" in "Casablanca."

Snow White kissing Dopey Bashful on the head.

John Wayne putting the reins in his mouth in "True Grit" and galloping across the mountain meadow, weapons in both hands.

Jimmy Stewart in "Vertigo," approaching Kim Novak across the room, realizing she embodies all of his obsessions - better than he knows.

The early film experiment proving that horses do sometimes have all four hoofs off the ground.

Gene Kelly singin' in the rain.

Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta discuss what they call Quarter Pounders in France, in "Pulp Fiction."

The Man in the Moon getting a cannon shell in his eye, in the Melies film "A Voyage to the Moon."

Pauline in peril, tied to the railroad tracks.

A boy running joyously to greet his returning father, in "Sounder."

Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock face in "Safety Last."

Orson Welles smiling enigmatically in the doorway in "The Third Man."

An angel looking down sadly over Berlin, in Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire."

The Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination: Over and over again, a moment frozen in time.

A homesick North African, sadly telling a hooker that what he really wants is not sex but couscous, in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Fear Eats the Soul: Ali."

Wile E. Coyote, suspended in air.

Zero Mostel throwing a cup of cold coffee at the hysterical Gene Wilder in Mel Brooks' "The Producers," and Wilder screaming: "I'm still hysterical! Plus, now I'm wet!"

An old man all alone in his home, faced with the death of his wife and the indifference of his children, in Yasujiro Ozu's "Tokyo Story."

"Smoking." Robert Mitchum's response, holding up his cigarette, when Kirk Douglas offers him a smoke in "Out of the Past."

Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg wading in the fountain in "La Dolce Vita."

The moment in Akira Kurosawa's "High and Low" when a millionaire discovers that it was not his son who was kidnapped, but his chauffeur's son - and then the eyes of the two fathers meet.

The distant sight of people appearing over the horizon at the end of "Schindler's List."

R2D2 and C3PO in "Star Wars."

E.T. and friend riding their bicycle across the face of the moon.

Marlon Brando's screaming "Stella!" in "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Hannibal Lecter smiling at Clarise in "The Silence of the Lambs."

"Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain't heard nothin' yet!" The first words heard in the first talkie, "The Jazz Singer," said by Al Jolson.

Jack Nicholson trying to order a chicken salad sandwich in "Five Easy Pieces."

"Nobody's perfect": Joe E. Brown's last line in "Some Like It Hot," explaining to Tony Curtis why he plans to marry Jack Lemmon even though he is a man.


The shooting party in Renoir's "Rules of the Game."

The haunted eyes of Antoine Doinel, Truffaut's autobiographical hero, in the freeze frame that ends "The 400 Blows."

Jean-Paul Belmondo flipping a cigarette into his mouth in Godard's "Breathless."

The casting of the great iron bell in Andrei Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublev."

"What have you done to its eyes?" Dialogue by Mia Farrow in "Rosemary's Baby."

Moses parting the Red Sea in "The Ten Commandments."

An old man found dead in a child's swing, his mission completed, at the end of Kurosawa's "Ikiru."

The haunted eyes of the actress Maria Falconetti in Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc."

The children watching the train pass by in Ray's "Pather Panchali."

The baby carriage bouncing down the steps in Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin."

"Are you lookin' at me?" Robert De Niro in "Taxi Driver."

"My father made them an offer they couldn't refuse:" Al Pacino in "The Godfather."

The mysterious body in the photographs in Antonioni's "Blow-Up."

"One word, Benjamin: plastics." From "The Graduate."

A man dying in the desert in von Stroheim's "Greed."

Eva Marie Saint clinging to Cary Grant's hand on Mt. Rushmore in "North by Northwest."

Astaire and Rogers dancing.

"There ain't no sanity clause!" Chico to Groucho in "A Night at the Opera."

"They call me Mr. Tibbs." Sidney Poitier in Norman Jewison's "In the Heat of the Night."

The sadness of the separated lovers in Jean Vigo's "L'Atalante."

The vast expanse of desert, and then tiny figures appearing, in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Jack Nicholson on the back of the motorcycle, wearing a football helmet, in "Easy Rider."

The geometrical choreography of the Busby Berkeley girls.

The peacock spreading its tail feathers in the snow, in Fellini's "Amarcord."

Robert Mitchum in "Night of the Hunter," with "LOVE" tattooed on the knuckles of one hand, and "HATE" on the other.

Joan Baez singing "Joe Hill" in "Woodstock."

Robert De Niro's transformation from sleek boxer to paunchy nightclub owner in "Raging Bull."

Bette Davis: "Fasten your seat belts; it's gonna be a bumpy night!" in "All About Eve."

"That spider is as big as a Buick!" Woody Allen in "Annie Hall."

The chariot race in "Ben-Hur."

Barbara Harris singing "It Don't Worry Me" to calm a panicked crowd in Robert Altman's "Nashville."

The game of Russian roulette in "The Deer Hunter."

Chase scenes: "The French Connection," "Bullitt," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Diva."

The shadow of the bottle hidden in the light fixture, in "The Lost Weekend."

"I coulda been a contender." Brando in "On the Waterfront."

George C. Scott's speech about the enemy in "Patton:" "We're going to go through him like crap through a goose."

Rocky Balboa running up the steps and pumping his hand into the air, with all of Philadelphia at his feet.

Debra Winger saying goodbye to her children in "Terms of Endearment."

The montage of the kissing scenes in "Cinema Paradiso."

The dinner guests who find they somehow cannot leave, in Bunuel's "The Exterminating Angel."

A knight plays chess with Death, in Bergman's "The Seventh Seal."

The savage zeal of the Klansmen in Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation."

The problem of the door that won't stay closed, in Jacques Tati's "Mr. Hulot's Holiday."

"I'm still big! It's the pictures that got small!" Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard."

"We're a long way from Kansas!" Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz."

An overhead shot beginning with an entrance hall, and ending with a closeup of a key in Ingrid Bergman's hand, in Hitchcock's "Notorious."

"There ain't much meat on her, but what's there is choice." Spencer Tracy about Katharine Hepburn in "Pat and Mike."

The day's outing of the mental patients in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

"I always look well when I'm near death." Greta Garbo to Robert Taylor in "Camille."

"It took more than one night to change my name to Shanghai Lily." Marlene Dietrich in "Shanghai Express."

"I'm walkin' here!" Dustin Hoffman in "Midnight Cowboy."

W.C. Fields flinching as a prop man hurls handfuls of fake snow into his face in "The Fatal Glass of Beer."

"The next time you got nothin' to do, and lots of time to do it, come up and see me." Mae West in "My Little Chickadee."

"Top o' the world, Ma!" James Cagney in "White Heat."

Richard Burton exploding when Elizabeth Taylor reveals their "secret" in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Henry Fonda getting his hair cut in "My Darling Clementine."

"Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!" Alfonso Bedoya to Humphrey Bogart in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

"There's your dog. Your dog's dead. But there had to be something that made it move. Doesn't there?" Line from Errol Morris' "Gates of Heaven."

"Don't touch the suit!" Burt Lancaster in "Atlantic City."

Gena Rowlands arrives at John Cassavetes' house with a taxicab full of adopted animals, in "Love Streams."

"I want to live again. I want to live again. I want to live again. Please God, let me live again." Jimmy Stewart to the angel in "It's a Wonderful Life."

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr embrace on the beach in "From Here to Eternity."

Mookie throws the trash can through the window of Sal's Pizzeria, in "Do the Right Thing."

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning," dialogue by Robert Duvall, in "Apocalypse Now."

"Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above." Katharine Hepburn to Humphrey Bogart in "The African Queen."

"Mother of mercy. Is this the end of Rico?" Edward G. Robinson in "Little Caesar."

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In memory: Arthur Penn, master director


Arthur Penn, whose "Bonnie and Clyde" was a watershed in American film, died Tuesday night at 88. Gentle, much loved and widely gifted, he began life in poverty and turned World War Two acting experience in the Army into a career that led to directing in the earliest days of television and included much work on Broadway.

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Biggest Acting, Best and Worst: Over the top, Ma!

View image Looming large.

I believe it was Gordon Gecko who proclaimed: "Ham is good!"

The "Wall Street" supervillain (superhero?) was not advocating violation of any dietary laws, of course, but simply stating a fact: Sometimes Big Acting can be quite enjoyable. Other times, of course, it can be cringe-worthy, irritating, risible, embarrassing. Only you can decide which is which. For you.

Take for example the story of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in "Mommie Dearest" -- she of "No wire hangers!" and "Eat your meat!" (both precursors of "I drink your milkshake!"). Pre-release publicity reports claimed that Dunaway was giving a serious dramatic performance. But from the very first screenings it was painfully (yet fasciatingly) clear that somebody was going off her rocker -- but which actress was it: Crawford or Dunaway?

Performances pitched at the balcony, or the moon, always take the risk of falling somewhere between "tour-de-force" and "trying way too hard," virtuosity and showboating. And opinions may very about where they come down. (See "A Journey to the End of Taste," below.) You may wince at the Method nakedness displayed by Marlon Brando or James Dean in some of their most intense emotional moments ("You're tearing me apart!"). Or you may rejoice at even the most outré dramatic and/or comedic efforts of Daniel Day-Lewis, Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Bette Davis, Jack Nicholson, Klaus Kinski, Will Ferrell, Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Kevin Spacey, Whoopi Goldberg, Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Nicolas Cage, Ben Stiller, Tyler Perry, Owen Wilson, Gene Wilder... while others find them excruciating, overwrought or unintentionally campy.

The bigger the performance, the bigger the risks. Or maybe not. Just look over the history of Oscar nominations for acting.

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Richard Pryor: 1940-2005


(Note from Roger Ebert: Cynthia, who now lives and works in Tucson, was a features writer at the Sun-Times in the 1970s, where our desks faced each other and we shared everything from coffee to the mysteries of the new computers. She sent me this after the death of Richard Pryor.)

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Is Willy Wonka Wacko Jacko?


Is Michael Jackson one of the not-so-secret ingredients in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"? Critics overwhelmingly see it that way, even if Johnny Depp and many moviegoers don’t.

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Movie Answer Man (03/26/2000)

Q. I checked out the "Eyes Wide Shut" DVD to see if the flub I noticed in the movie had been fixed. It had! I'm referring to the appearance of a crew member (or maybe Kubrick himself) reflected in one of the stainless steel shower stall posts in Ziegler's bathroom. This occurs at the end of Dr. Harford's examination of the overdosed woman... just as Ziegler says something about "this being between just you and me." On the DVD, where once there was a reflection there is now a blank white space. It makes me wonder if on the next DVD of Kubrick's "Spartacus," those soldiers with wrist watches will no longer know the time of day. (David Kodeski, Chicago)

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Interview with Gene Wilder (1979)

EL AIR, CA - "Ah, yes, the Sin of Pride," Gene Wilder says, nodding his head as if reminded of an old and familiar friend. "You thought you knew where the West Gate was, but, in reality..." Right, I said. I was thinking of the East Gate.

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Hanging out with Wilder and Pryor


"What happened was, I was reading about Buster Keaton," Gene Wilder said. "About how he did all his own stunts. Like the time he had to stand in exactly the right place for the two-ton building to fall on him and he was right where the window was. So then we were making 'Silver Streak' and there we were doing our own stunts."

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Mel Brooks: "It will have a plot."


"Everybody's singin' it, everybody's hummin' it, that Tran-syl-VAN-ian Lullaby!" Mel Brooks conducted an imaginary symphony orchestra. "Isn't it a lovely tune?" he asked. "It was composed just for our movie. I said I needed a little romantic music for the Grandson of Frankenstein's wedding night, and here's what I got."The, uh, haunting melody drifted out of a portable tape deck and through the big Sound Stage Five on the 20th Century-Fox lot. The stage has been outfitted as the interiors and exteriors (and mad scientist's laboratory) of Frankenstein's gothic castle in Transylvania, as seen most memorably in the 1935 production of "Bride of Frankenstein."This time the familiar old Transylvanian settings have been invoked for Brooks' newest comedy, "Young Frankenstein," which is sort of a cross between "Frankenstein," "Young Edison" and stark madness. It's an expensive movie as comedies go -- about $2.5 million -- but Brooks figures his last comedy, "Blazing Saddles," will gross about $20 or $30 million and so he can afford it."The movie is set in 1974," Brooks announces, leading a party of technicians up a ladder to a parapet. His star, Gene Wilder, is already up there, looking anxiously at the sky. I wasn't sure I'd heard him right, and I checked out the ancient Gothic battlements and the scrawny horse nudging in the hay in front of the entranceway."That's right, 1974, and watch the ladder, we got the cut-rate insurance plan," Brooks said. "It's set in 1974 in New York City, where young Freddy Frankenstein is disturbed by the bad image that his grandfather, who was THE Frankenstein, is getting in the media."So he takes his vacation and flies back to Transylvania to visit the old family spread, which is still standing, by the way. And once he's here, he gets entranced by all this old scientific equipment his ancestors left lying around, and the next thing you know, the boy's trying to put together his own monster. 'Also, he falls in love and marries one of the local maidens."By this time we were all on top of the parapet, and Wilder was looking somewhat uneasily over the edge. Wilder isn't so much a comedian as a gifted actor who makes pathos, chicanery, timidity and roguishness (and about anything else) seem funny. He got his first movie break as the undertaker who was kidnapped in "Bonnie and Clyde," and he was in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and in two of Brooks' previous productions, "The Producers" (1968) and "Blazing Saddles." This time he plays Frankenstein."I like to have Gene in my pictures because then I know it's a Mel Brooks picture and I only like to work on the best pictures," Brooks explained."Tell me how this is going to work," Wilder said."The monster is climbing up the vines on the castle wall," Brooks explained. "And you're up here on top, and..." He paused and looked at me. "Hey, that's right," he said. "You're from Chicago. You know who we got playing the monster? Peter Boyle. From Second City. Makes the greatest Frankenstein's monster you ever saw. Tell that to the folks back home: After an international talent search, Mel Brooks says only a Chicago monster fits the ticket."He turned back to Wilder. "You got the picture?""What if I fall off?" Wilder said."Zip, that's it," Brooks said. "We print it and the show ends with young Frankenstein's death from falling off the parapet.""We'll have a platform out of sight to catch you if you fall," said a stunt coordinator."Do you think it ought to rain?" said Wilder."What do we need for rain up here?" said Brooks."Well, we could string the pipes and give you rain, but then you got a problem with the run-off," said a special effects man."Your problem with the run-off is, let me guess, no place to run it off," said Brooks."We would have to coordinate the drains. We already have drains in the courtyard...""Maybe just some lightning and thunder, as if it's about to rain." Wilder suggested."That's it!" Brooks said. "Kid, you're a genius!"He slapped him on the back and led the way back down the ladder. At ground level, and behind a few more vast stone walls, we found Frankenstein's laboratory. A giant chair sat in the center of it, with arm and leg buckles and yards of heavy chain to restrain the monster. Electrical devices and strangelyshaped flasks lined the walls."Does this look familiar?" Brooks said. "It should. This doesn't look like Frankenstein's original laboratory; it is Frankenstein's original laboratory. The special effects guy who designed the lab for 'Bride of Frankenstein' kept all his props. He set the lab up for us just like it was the first time. Works fine, too. We can turn out a monster an hour during peak production periods."It was time for lunch. The commissary at 20th CenturyFox reflects some of the belt-tightening that's going on all over Hollywood. In the old days, producers, directors and the big stars ate in a special executive dining room with big double doors that faced a giant mural with Darryl F. Zanuck in the middle of it. Many executives whose pictures were running over budget preferred to avoid indigestion by sitting with their eyes away from Zanuck's penetrating stare. Now Zanuck overlooks a self-service short order line.Brooks hurried through the line, grabbing a double cheeseburger, potato chips and iced tea. On the way to a table, he passed the company's president, Gordon Stulberg, dining at a table that would have been for extras in the old days."Hey, Gordon!î Brooks said. "You never come over to visit the set! You know where we are? Five? Come over and visit sometime! We only got four more days of shooting. If you were really Jewish, wouldn't you come over and look at the store?"Stulberg laughed and said he would visit in the next couple of days."You lose the way, call, I'll send a boy," Brooks said. He sat down and put ketchup on his cheeseburger."Lots of trouble the other day," he said. "We had to photograph a rat coming down the steps. No luck. It's bad because rats will not take direction. They just refuse to turn this way, turn that way...Gordon?"Stulberg, getting up from his table, looked around."Now they say 'Blazing Saddles' will do $30 million," Brooks informed him."Fantastic, Mel," said Stulberg."It's a Warner Bros. picture but I tell him that to keep his spirits up," Brooks said. "I got a three-picture deal here at 20th. And, how would Variety put it? I'm skying Westward to firm up the pact. No, that's wrong; I'm already here. I've got it: I'm skying Eastward, to tell the folks."People ask my why I'm doing a monster picture. I say it's so people will know for once and all the difference between Frankenstein and the monster. When I did 'Blazing Saddles,' they said, 'What? Mel Brooks directing a Western?' Why not! I've seen more Westerns than anybody. We sat through three Westerns every Saturday until our mothers came to find us with a flashlight. I know more about Westerns than any cowboy, and so did all the kids on my block..."Back on the sound stage, it was time for the first shot of the afternoon. It required Wilder, dressed in a Gothic bathrobe, to kick open the door of the bridal chamber, carry his bride through, and place her on the floor. Then he says, "Welcome home, Mrs. Frankenstein," and she says, "Frankenstein -- that name used to scare me when I was a little girl."And then, as he waits impatiently in the bedroom, she slips into the dressing room, from which the strains of her humming the "Transylvanian Lullaby" soon emerge. "That song," says Wilder, inevitably..."I've heard it -- somewhere before..."The entire picture will be in black and white," Brooks said. "No color. That gives a cartooning effect. And every single thing we do with the camera will be traditional. No zooms, but lots of iris shots, lots of wipes, lots of ending love scenes with a close-up of the logs blazing in the fireplace. This picture will have a modicum of class. And it will differ from 'Blazing Saddles' in one essential, which is that it will have a plot."And then, as he waits impatiently in the bedroom, she slips into the dressing room, from which the strains of her humming the "Transylvanian Lullaby" soon emerge. "That song," says Wilder, inevitably..."I've heard it -- somewhere before..."The entire picture will be in black and white," Brooks said. "No color. That gives a cartooning effect. And every single thing we do with the camera will be traditional. No zooms, but lots of iris shots, lots of wipes, lots of ending love scenes with a close-up of the logs blazing in the fireplace. This picture will have a modicum of class. And it will differ from 'Blazing Saddles' in one essential, which is that it will have a plot.""The entire picture will be in black and white," Brooks said. "No color. That gives a cartooning effect. And every single thing we do with the camera will be traditional. No zooms, but lots of iris shots, lots of wipes, lots of ending love scenes with a close-up of the logs blazing in the fireplace. This picture will have a modicum of class. And it will differ from 'Blazing Saddles' in one essential, which is that it will have a plot."

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