The wild--and mild--bunch

Warner Bros. celebrates its 75th birthday with a weeklong best-of fest

The 1990s (June 14)
Looking back on our current decade as it creeps toward the millennium, you'd like to think it would be filled with some monumental movies that forever changed the way we look at the world. Well, from the selection here, it apparently hasn't happened--at least not thanks to the WB, which far too often has offered bigger, but not always better, reinterpretations of genre pictures. (The Fugitive might be good, but including it in the same fest as All the President's Men and The Jazz Singer is stretching the point till it snaps.)

Unforgiven--the only sturdy offering, either as actor or director, from Clint Eastwood so far this decade--managed to celebrate and deconstruct the Western mythos in a decade when all good sense would say the genre was long dead. With GoodFellas, Martin Scorsese makes long, sweeping, but ultimately brutal love to the gangster film, ripping away the grand fiction of the Godfather saga with a true story of life in the vicious, paranoid, and corrupt Mafia. And then there's JFK, which showed that history, fiction, documentary, and wishful thinking can be spliced together in such an inebriating concoction that you'd almost believe Oliver Stone was sane.

The 1930s (June 15) and 1940s (June 16)
From the so-called glory days of the studio system comes a slew of pictures that are truly worthy of the designation classics--which means that modern audiences will find them too dull, stilted, and just plain old to stomach without guffawing. The Adventures of Robin Hood, for example, is a shiny lip gloss from days gone by. Overflowing with a pantheon of icons such as Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone, the cast is as timeless and as thrilling as the story itself; they don't make them like this anymore.

For those partial to hard crime stories, The Public Enemy holds up remarkably well, with James Cagney serving one of the most vile and merciless anti-heroes Hollywood would see for years once the Hollywood Production Codes went into effect. But it ain't Casablanca, which still gets 'em going after all these years. Sure, it's a hopelessly flawed and melodramatic star vehicle, but don't sweat the small stuff; just wait for Bogey to send Ingrid Bergman on her way, dry the eyes of the women around you, and stick around for The Maltese Falcon, a much better and far more influential star vehicle that lets Bogart be the bad good guy instead of the sensitive one.

The 1950s (June 17)
Few directors have affected the modern crop of blockbuster auteurs more than John Ford, whose The Searchers stars John Wayne as an anti-hero out to destroy the Comanches who massacred his family; that film, which kicks off Wednesday's screenings, is his masterpiece. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese have paid homage to this movie in their own work, but that doesn't necessarily mean the film goes down easy. There's some forced acting, and the film does kind of hobble along like John Wayne's drawl. Still, from the opening shot till the final credits, you can tell an artist is at work.

A Streetcar Named Desire is the other film from this period that has art written all over it in capital letters--and in a good way. From Tennessee Williams' words to Elia Kazan's direction to Vivien Leigh's neurotic Blanche Dubois and Marlon Brando's uncaged animal Stanley Kowalski, you never forget you're watching magicians practice their craft; but rarely has a finer rabbit ever been pulled from a hat.

The 1960s (June 18)
The festival closes with two of the most pivotal films in the series, Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch; see them back-to-back if you dare, and you must. Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde wallowed in the anti-establishment energy of the late 1960s, throwing conventional morality out the window and riddling it with thousands of machine-gun bullets. The shocking display of violence outraged audiences (and sent Hollywood entertainment down the violence-happy slippery slope it's still on today), but the film's balance of humor and horror is its most lasting legacy--that, and Warren Beatty's eerie performance as a deadly, wide-eyed innocent.

The Wild Bunch, recently restored to director Peckinpah's original vision, is the ultimate Western and the precursor to the ever-popular ballet of carnage carried on by the likes of Martin Scorsese and John Woo. The opening and closing scenes alone are worth the price of admission, and this release alone makes the entire festival worthwhile.

--Scott Kelton Jones

The Warner Bros. Festival of Classics takes place June 12 through June 18 at the AMC Glen Lakes Theatre. Single feature admission is $6.50; full-day passes are available for $15; and a seven-day pass costs $50. Call (972) 724-8000 for a complete schedule and showtimes.

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