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Hollywood & the Hereafter: Movie Visions of Heaven, Hell and Limbo

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One of the riskiest things a film can do is offer a vision of the hereafter. There’s no rulebook, no old photos or video footage to guide the director or set designer. All you can hope for is to create the proper mood for that particular story. These films did a much better job than most.

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN (1946)

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Stunning visuals mark this story of a British airman (David Niven) fighting to return to Earth from the afterlife. There is a wonderful, extended court sequence involving historical figures and a great turn by Raymond Massey as an American prosecutor who has a grudge against the British because of the Revolutionary War. The film also plays around with color and black and white to great effect. And just look at that staircase!

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941)

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This one shines every time we encounter the Devil, played by a cagey and charismatic Walter Huston. As things progress, he presides over a trial in which legendary orator Daniel Webster tries to free a man who sold his immortal soul for a few years of prosperity. Despite its age, this film has several moments of biting commentary about American history.

BEETLEJUICE (1988)

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How can you not love a movie that casts limbo as the craziest, slowest waiting room ever? Even witch doctors and people who have been sawed in half can’t keep it interesting, which is hilarious.

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998)

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This movie actually revels in its rich, expansive visions of both heaven and hell. The overly sentimental plot has Robin Williams opting to give up his pastel painting heaven in order to retrieve his beloved wife from hell. The journey is breathtaking. This is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it.

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (1991)

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Like so much of Albert Brooks’ work, “Defending Your Life” is a real gem. So clever and adroit. Brooks envisions the afterlife as an American resort city, not unlike Las Vegas. The deceased prepare legal arguments to prove they’re ready to move on to the next sphere of existence. Everyone wears white robes, eats delicious food without gaining weight and takes in a couple of shows. Nice. Also, excellent work by the great Meryl Streep and Rip Torn, who set the tone here for his “Larry Sanders” and “Men in Black” roles.

HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943)

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Don’t be fooled by the title. “Heaven Can Wait” actually starts in hell, which apparently looks like a swanky gentlemen’s club. An old man (Don Ameche) has come to explain to the Devil why his worthless life merits admittance. From here, we flash back to the story of this man’s years as a rich playboy and philandering husband. Check it out and see if you come to the same conclusion as the Master of Hades.

HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1978)

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Warren Beatty had a big hit with this smart, nostalgic, beautifully filmed romantic comedy. Beatty plays a pro quarterback who finds himself taken from Earth up to heaven by mistake, due to a clerical error by a guardian angel (co-director Buck Henry). It is left to the angel’s supervisor, Mr. Jordan (a perfectly cast James Mason), to find a new body for Beatty to inhabit and resume his life. Heaven is pictured as a vast expanse of fluffy clouds. Or fog. Your call. The movie is filled with excellent supporting performances, including Charles Grodin, Julie Christie and the great Jack Warden. This plot doesn’t sound much like 1943’s “Heaven Can Wait,” does it? That’s because it’s not. In reality, it’s a remake of …

HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (1941)

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You know the drill. Only this time, it’s Robert Montgomery in the starring role, and he’s a boxer looking for a new body with which to win a title bout. Claude Rains is very good as Mr. Jordan, and the film has a nice, breezy vibe. Like Beatty’s version, this one has a fluffy, limitless heaven. But because it’s in black and white with some interesting lighting choices, it looks particularly otherworldly.

CONSTANTINE (2005)

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“Constantine” goes all-out in its depiction of a frantic hell full of demons and devourers. Keanu Reeves plays a chain smoking detective who has been to hell and back already. It’s quite jarring when the movie shifts to hell, but I guess that was the intention.

LILIOM (1934)

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Here is a long forgotten film that modern audiences have been able to see only thanks to video and DVD. It’s in French and directed by the legendary Fritz Lang. The subject matter is bracing and complex. A violent man with a criminal past (Charles Boyer) kills himself rather than go to jail. He is taken to Judgement in heaven, which is amazingly similar to a police precinct house. He spends the next 16 years in limbo, then gets the chance to visit his daughter back on Earth, who now is a teenager. His actions during the visit will determine whether he goes to heaven or hell. The special effects are glorious for their era, and the ending is more complicated than you’d think.

DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997)

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Woody Allen goes for a standard issue hell in “Deconstructing Harry” – fire, brimstone, darkness. What makes it funny is that the Devil is the guy who stole Woody’s girl. Billy Crystal plays him in a very casual, cocktail party sort of way. It’s a Woody Allen movie that doesn’t get a lot of love, but should.

OUR TOWN (1940)

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“Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s stage play about rural life in Grover’s Corners, N.H., is an American masterpiece. It has been filmed several times, including a 1940 version with William Holden and Martha Scott. In “Our Town,” the hereafter isn’t a place; it’s a perspective. It’s the idea that none of us has the capacity to fully understand our own mortality and hold in our heads the heartbreaking, transient nature of the world around us.

That makes a dozen, which is probably enough heaven and hell for one sitting. But by all means, feel free to add your own favorites.

Great Breakup Scenes

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Breaking up is never hard to do in Hollywood. Movies and TV shows are full of characters going through breakups of all sorts. Here are some examples we here at The Jimbo List find particularly memorable.

LOUIE (2012)

Full disclosure: this scene from Louis C.K.’s brilliant TV show is the inspiration for today’s List. Like everything else in the series, it’s original and realistically off-kilter. Louie and his not-really-a-girlfriend April break up almost by osmosis. She has to do all the talking, putting into words all the complicated feelings Louie has but can’t say. This guy is a genius.

ANNIE HALL (1977)

Let’s proceed to another New York City genius, Woody Allen. His films are brimming with breakups, plus a line about them that will live on forever in film history. In “Annie Hall,” he says that a relationship is like a shark. It has to keep moving forward in order to survive. “I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark,” he tells Diane Keaton.

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (2008)

I’m not certain about this, but I’m guessing Jason Segel is the first guy to do a movie breakup scene with full-frontal male nudity. Daring, but also smart. His character, who is getting dumped by Kristen Bell, is naked in every way.

WAITING TO EXHALE (1995)

Angela Bassett shows us the only thing you can do in a movie when your husband leaves you for another woman: you blow up his car. That way, there’s no ambiguity about the breakup.

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)

This Oscar winner for Best Picture is a perfect example of the kind of stoic, do-what-you-have-to-do spirit that was such a part of American life – even in breakups. Dana Andrews is a returning World War II veteran with a menial job and a cheating wife. Then he meets Teresa Wright, the daughter of another veteran. They fall in love, but the father tells Andrews to do the right thing and leave his daughter alone. And that’s what he does, in a terse, no-whining breakup scene.

SEINFELD (1993)

“Seinfeld” featured many great breakups during its run, but my fave is when Gwen dumps poor George with the line, “It’s not you, it’s me.” This infuriates George, not because he got dumped, but because he insists he “invented” the it’s-not-you-it’s-me strategy.

THE FOOT FIST WAY (2006)

Not many people have seen “The Foot Fist Way.” It’s a weird, weird film, but features a fearless performance by the hilarious Danny McBride. He’s a martial arts instructor with a whole mess of problems. In one scene, his unfaithful wife asks him to take her back. He responds by urinating on his wedding ring.

KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979)

Is it any surprise that Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep have one of the most painful, incredible breakup scenes of all time? Every one of their scenes together in “Kramer vs. Kramer” is amazing. Here, Streep’s nerves, determination and fear are all right on the surface, as are Hoffman’s initial arrogance, denial and frustration.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)

Aptly, this movie’s take on the oddly anti-social underpinnings of Facebook begins with an Aaron Sorkin verbal assault of a breakup. Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg are terrific handling Sorkin’s intricate dialogue. It’s like watching a prizefight.

NETWORK (1976)

Let’s not forget the other “Network,” while we’re at it. William Holden is a network news exec who leaves his wife for Faye Dunaway, a ruthless network programming exec. When he gets fed up with Dunaway, he tells her she’s “television incarnate, indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy.” That sort of line was devastating in the ’70s.

500 DAYS OF SUMMER (2009)

It was fun while it lasted, but eventually Zooey Deschanel has to lower the boom on Joseph Gordon-Levitt. She does it by invoking doomed punk rock couple Sid and Nancy. Gordon-Levitt is stunned to learn that he’s Nancy. Yikes.

SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (1993)

Meg Ryan was the queen of the amicable movie breakup, wasn’t she? Here, and in “You’ve Got Mail,” she calmly, earnestly sits the guy down and explains that the organization has decided to make a change. Bill Pullman is the target in “Sleepless,” and he reacts with a sad dignity. But hey – she’s got to get to the Empire State Building, pronto.

CLOSER (2004)

“Closer” is like a sampler of breakup scenes. The whole cast – Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen – gets at least one good breakup to chew on during the proceedings. Director Mike Nichols has covered some of this bitter relationship territory before, in classics such as “Carnal Knowledge” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” This one isn’t quite in the same league with those.

MANHATTAN (1979)

To me, the scene where Woody Allen ends his relationship with young Mariel Hemingway is utterly heartbreaking. It’s a decidedly creepy relationship to begin with, of course. But Hemingway’s tears, and her quiet pain, are deeply moving.

GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)

Best breakup scene. Best breakup line. It comes at the end of a long, eventful story, but it’s worth the wait. People have been quoting it, and Clark Gable’s delivery of it, for more than 70 years.

I know there are plenty of other good examples out there. Which ones are your favorites?

Great TV & Movie Moms You May Not Remember

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This weekend we celebrate Mother’s Day, so here’s something to get you in the mood: A bunch of terrific, but sometimes overlooked, moms from TV and movies.

SADA THOMPSON

“FAMILY” (1976-80)

This series about a California family was somewhat of a soap opera, but it got many things just right. Chief among them was the fiercely intelligent performance by Sada Thompson as Kate Lawrence. Without resorting to showy theatrics, she conveyed her character’s deep love for her kids even when they did self-destructive things. And what kid doesn’t do self-destructive things?

DIAHANN CARROLL

“JULIA” (1968-71)

Tame by today’s standards, “Julia” was an important show for its time. Carroll played a nurse raising her son alone, after her husband dies in Vietnam. Just like other shows of that era, it taught simple life lessons that were wrapped up neatly by the end of the episode. It didn’t need to be edgy; its mere existence on the TV schedule was statement enough. Plus, Carroll was excellent.

MERCEDES RUEHL

“BIG” (1988)

Amid the fantasy and comedy elements of the Tom Hanks movie, “Big,” there is this great performance by Ruehl. Her character, Mrs. Baskin, believes her young son has been kidnapped or run away. Her brief flashes of anger and sadness actually keep the rest of the story in perspective.

ADELINE DE WALT REYNOLDS

“GOING MY WAY” (1944)

Here’s a testament to the power of motherhood. In this movie, young priest Bing Crosby is trying to persuade old priest Barry Fitzgerald to change with the times and rejuvenate his spirit. At the end of the film, Crosby arranges to have Fitzgerald’s mother brought in from Ireland as a surprise. When he sees her – ancient, smiling, barely able to walk – he melts into her open arms.

MERYL STREEP

“THE RIVER WILD” (1994)

Introducing Meryl Streep, action hero mom. In “The River Wild,” her character, a whitewater rafting expert, has multiple problems to solve. She has to save her marriage, keep her family from being killed by a pair of criminals – and navigate some nasty rapids.

HIAM ABBASS

“THE VISITOR” (2007)

Abbass is quietly moving in a film that also is quietly moving. She plays a Syrian woman in America, whose son has been sent to a detention center for illegal immigrants. She feels guilt, rage and helplessness, but never wavers in her love and sacrifice.

BESS ARMSTRONG

“MY SO-CALLED LIFE” (1994-95)

There was nothing quiet about Bess Armstrong in “My So-Called Life.” Her mom character got mad, argued, debated and was willing to discipline her 15-year-old daughter, played by Claire Danes. It was painfully real. Yet she was willing to listen and console, too. Armstrong may have been the most realistic mom in TV history.

REGINA TAYLOR

“CLOCKERS” (1995)

This is maternal bravery, depicted on film. In “Clockers,” Taylor absolutely tears into a drug dealer (played by Mekhi Phifer) who might be taking an interest in recruiting her young son for the drug trade. Her fire – and her fear that she might be fighting a losing battle – are right there for everyone to see.

ANJELICA HUSTON

“50/50” (2011)

This is a tricky role that Huston plays very nicely. She’s the mom of an adult son who develops cancer, and her initial scenes require her to be fairly hysterical. As the movie progresses, an interesting thing happens with her. You come to realize through her that being fairly hysterical is actually part of a parent’s job.

PATRICIA WETTIG

“thirtysomething” (1987-91)

Wettig’s Nancy Weston on “thirtysomething” got to do something pretty radical for a TV mom. Her character was allowed to grow and change. She was at various times timid, mousy, trapped, jealous, angry, independent, forgiving and resilient. Great, great performance.

BARBARA BARRIE

“BREAKING AWAY” (1979)

She’s one of my favorites. Barrie is pleasantly daffy as the Indiana mom whose son has suddenly decided to pretend he’s a professional bicycle racer from Italy. She just goes with it, merrily waiting for her chance to inject some common sense here and there.

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone. Feel free to add to The List!

Cinema’s Great Chameleons

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Lots of actors use makeup and special effects to change their appearance for roles, but only a handful seem able to innately transform themselves on a regular basis. Luckily for us, many of them are plying their craft currently. Here are some of them, along with a few of their predecessors.

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS

I can’t wait to see this guy play Abraham Lincoln, which is his next project. Day-Lewis disappears entirely into his characters, from Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York” to Christy Brown in “My Left Foot.” His acting has a powerful, intense quality.

PETER SELLERS

I’m certainly not alone in thinking Sellers was a genius. Rather than trying to find the emotional core of historical figures, he developed fully-realized characters out of whole cloth. Clouseau, Dr. Strangelove, Chance the gardener – I loved them all.

SACHA BARON COHEN

To me, Sacha Baron Cohen is the heir to Peter Sellers. His commitment to his characters is total, which, in this era, includes taking on the guerrilla film making format of “Borat.” It will be interesting to see if he takes his talent to more dramatic roles, as Sellers eventually did.

SEAN PENN

Great, great actor in the lineage from Brando to DeNiro on down. One thing distinct about Penn, I think, is that he has a particular facility for tinkering with his voice and mannerisms. Harvey Milk (“Milk”), David Kleinfeld (“Carlito’s Way”), Jeff Spicoli (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) and Matthew Poncelet (“Dead Man Walking”) are very different dudes.

ROD STEIGER

Steiger found a niche starring in movie biographies of everyone from W.C. Fields to Napoleon. Those weren’t my favorites, though. Try out this double feature: Steiger’s Southern bigot sheriff from “In the Heat of the Night,” followed by his Holocaust survivor in “The Pawnbroker.”

NICOLE KIDMAN

Kidman’s career is often overshadowed by her personal life, which obscures a terrific filmography. She can play ditzy, sexy, neurotic, tragic and depressed. She also has a great flair for dialects.

CHRISTIAN BALE

The key to Bale’s acting, as much as anything else, is the way he adapts the contours of his own body. He was emaciated in “The Machinist,” wiry and wired in “The Fighter,” and buff as Batman.

JOHNNY DEPP

Thanks mainly to Tim Burton, Depp has had multiple opportunities to play with accents, wigs, timing and even singing. Throw in a funky pirate and an undercover cop infiltrating the mob, and you’ve got an exceptional gallery of characters.

MERYL STREEP

Streep’s reach and range are so amazing, so consistently on the mark, that it’s easy to take her for granted. She’s played Australian, Italian, British, Polish, highbrow, lowbrow, powerful and homeless. Her accents are flawless and her acting is unsurpassed.

Great chameleons, all. Now it’s your turn – which ones did I leave out?