The wild--and mild--bunch

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

Star Wars notwithstanding, film revivals rarely work on a large scale anymore. Blame it on cable or videotape, or just the ever increasing number of new films released every year, but today's audiences--born and bred on the blockbuster and a steady diet of coming attractions, waiting eagerly for tomorrow's movie, much less today's--like their thrills immediate and now. The idea of going to a theater to pay full price for a movie they can catch on cable or their satellite hasn't much caught on--not unless there are 30 extra minutes of footage and dozens of added special effects. As of late, film fans have relished the chance to see such touched-up classics as Vertigo, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory once again on the big screen the way God and the director intended, but the options are usually few and far between.

Well, film lovers should thank God for marketing departments, which give us events like the Warner Bros. Festival of Classics, a weeklong run of great and not-so-great-but-still-an-important-part-of-the-franchise films from the 1930s to the 1990s touring the country this summer. In case you haven't noticed on all the Warner Bros. logos flashing across silver screens these days, this is the WB's 75th anniversary. And apparently somebody somewhere thought that people needed to be reminded that Warner Bros. has brought us great movies such as Casablanca, Bonnie and Clyde, and...Superman? Well, I guess you have to try to jump-start interest in your superhero monopoly somehow after the horrible crash of Batman and Robin.

But Superman, like every other film in the series, has been given a brand-spanking-new print, and despite a few exceptions, most of the lot is worth the special treatment. (In addition, A Streetcar Named Desire has been newly restored, and the festival features the astonishing director's cut of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch.) Below is a list of the ones you should definitely not miss, listed by the decade being showcased. Warners has wisely chosen to highlight a decade a day, featuring four to six films each day, though not in chronological order: The fest begins on Friday with the 1970s, moves through the '80s and '90s during the busy weekend, then unspools the '30s through the '60s from Monday to Thursday.

There's a definite thrill in being able to see The Wild Bunch blown up 30 feet tall after all these years, or viewing The Searchers in all its Cinescope splendor. Why watch a movie on video at home when you can feel it in a theater? And it's a bargain too: Fifty bucks will get you 33 movies, and not one of them's Godzilla.

The 1970s (June 12)
The '70s were a turning point in American cinema. For a flash few years, directors emerged as the stars of Hollywood, equally celebrated as artists, educators, and entertainers of the masses. They were the authors of film--auteurs, as the French like to say. But by the end of the decade, movies themselves had become stars, and the mindless blockbuster event-film-of-the-week with plastic-cup tie-in that we suffer through now was born. This festival doses out a little bit of both extremes, ranging from (an expatriate but nonetheless Warner Bros. director celebrant) Stanley Kubrick's superbly stylistic and still controversial violent future-vision A Clockwork Orange to the frothy Superman.

The best mix of the two vibes here are Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon and William Friedkin's The Exorcist. In Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino gives a classic manic performance as a bank robber in one of the original quirky crime dramas. And The Exorcist, a piece of pure fluff hiding some serious misogynist fears behind the devil, is the kind of horror film that's been MIA for a long time on the big screen: intense visuals, mesmerizing sound, and some genuinely scary moments.

The 1980s (June 13)
Of course Warner Bros. can't showcase its 1980s films without prancing out the heavily Academy-award nominated The Color Purple and Best Picture-winning Chariots of Fire. Both The Color Purple, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the life of a black woman in the early 1900s, and Chariots, the story of rival British sprinters in early 1900s, are wonderfully filmed pictures that will stretch out resplendently on the big screen. But be warned: Both are also super-sweetened stories of triumphant heroism that may be too much so early in the day, especially for those who take their movies like their coffee.

For those, there's Ridley Scott's director's cut of Blade Runner, the film-noir-cum-sci-fi classic that can only be fully realized on the big screen. But true cinephiles won't want to miss the back-to-back Kubrick bill of Full Metal Jacket and The Shining. As with most of Kubrick's work, neither of these films won over audiences or critics when first released, but both deserve deeper deliberation. Those who believe FMJ hits its climax at the shocking end of the boot-camp initiation overlook the prolonged burn the Vietnam War scenes play out.

The Shining is too often damned for being far too cold and calculating to be a good horror movie, too full of over-the-top performances from Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall to be believable, and too divergent from Stephen King's novel to please Stephen King's cult. But the precision of the filmmaking makes for an experience that can be overwhelmingly in-your-face (the Steadicam has never been used as well--many of the images are scarred in our pop-culture psyche) and subversively subtle (the use of mirrored imagery and realities).

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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