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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 Swimming Pool Scenes

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Let’s celebrate the first official weekend of summer The Jimbo List way – with a slate of great swimming pool scenes from movies and television. Go ahead. Dive in!

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)

The technological wonders of 1946 are on full display in this delightful scene, in which Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are dancing in a high school gymnasium. Someone flips a switch and – wouldn’t you know it – the gym floor opens up to reveal a swimming pool!

NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION (1983)

Christie Brinkley will be forever known for her sexy pool scene with Chevy Chase in this 1980s comedy classic. Oh, the things that happen on the way to Walley World.

MEET THE PARENTS (2000)

Of course, there’s plenty of adventure to be found in the pool right at your own home. One of the many humiliations that Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) endured at the hands of his in-laws, including Robert DeNiro, was a brutal game of pool volleyball. Hilarious.

SNL’S “SYNCHRONIZED SWIMMING” (1984)

This filmed bit from “Saturday Night Live” is absolute brilliance. Harry Shearer and the great Martin Short play a couple of guys hoping to make the summer Olympics as male synchronized swimmers.

THE SWIMMER (1968)

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve always found this movie compelling. Burt Lancaster stars as a Connecticut suburbanite who decides to swim home via all the backyard swimming pools in his path. Because this is an adaptation of a John Cheever story, you know there’s going to be plenty of alienation and dysfunction along the way.

CADDYSHACK (1980)

On a much less serious note, we have that masterpiece of attitude and snarky charm, “Caddyshack.” You’ll never look at a candy bar the same way again, thanks to a particular scene featuring a stray Baby Ruth.

RUSHMORE (1998)

Bill Murray gets a back-to-back visit to The List. This is one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies, “Rushmore.” No one rocks Budweiser trunks like our man Murray.

SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)

“Sunset Boulevard” takes the swimming pool scene into the realm of film noir. Poor William Holden plays a Hollywood screenwriter who winds up in the deep end of things.

FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986)

Bueller’s buddy, played by Alan Ruck, tries to distance himself from his youthful fears and hurt by sinking to the bottom of the family pool.

WILD THINGS (1998)

Although it was not a great film, “Wild Things” did make waves due to a steamy pool scene with Neve Campbell and Denise Richards.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE’S THE BEWITCHIN’ POOL (1964)

In this episode, two unhappy children discover, at the bottom of their parents’ pool, a doorway to a special place where mom and dad don’t fight. Bad acting, but a bracing concept.

COCOON (1985)

For those who thought they’d never want to see Wilford Brimley topless, I offer “Cocoon.” A key scene has Brimley and a cadre of duffers taking a VERY rejuvenating swim.

TOWER HEIST (2011)

“Tower Heist” didn’t get great reviews, but it really wasn’t bad. It also happened to include one of the coolest pools in movie history.

BATHING BEAUTY (1944)

This film gives us one of the true wonders of cinema – Esther Williams and a phalanx of swimmers, turning a pool into a Technicolor playground. The cast of this odd musical featured the unlikely duo of Red Skelton and Basil Rathbone.

SPECIES (1995)

The sci-fi/horror movie genre takes a memorable dip in “Species.” Natasha Henstridge plays a gorgeous woman looking for love, but she isn’t exactly what she appears to be.

TOMORROWLAND EPISODE OF MAD MEN (2010)

“Mad Men” fans will remember how important it was when Don Draper saw his kids playing in the hotel pool with his secretary, Megan. The watery frolic showed him the possibility of a young, fun, fresh new start.

THE GRADUATE (1967)

Rarely has there been such a perfect blend of acting, directing and zeitgeist. This scene makes a swimming pool the focal point for a larger statement about youthful anxiety and discontent.

So that’s my List. What would you add?