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You Lookin’ at Me? Breaking the Fourth Wall

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There’s no better way to add some zing to a TV show or movie than to have a character suddenly turn and talk to the audience. Sure, it’s cheating. But if the character happens to have some charisma, it’s also fun. Here’s a toast to the best instances of breaking down that fourth wall.

IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW

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In his innovative 1980s comedy series, Garry Shandling made breaking the fourth wall the centerpiece of the whole show. He’d ask the audience questions and solicit their advice. The other characters on the show also were in on the trick. Garry treated the sitcom as the artificial absurdity that it is, but always with his trademark light touch. Even his theme song, “This is the Theme to Garry’s Show,” acknowledged the audience.

HIGH FIDELITY

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This was one of John Cusack’s best roles, and it worked precisely because of his interaction with viewers. Every eye roll, aside and bit of rage revealed that this guy wasn’t just a sarcastic slacker. He had depth.

THE BERNIE MAC SHOW

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Bernie Mac didn’t just talk to his sitcom viewers, whom he simply called, “America.” He cajoled them. He persuaded them. It allowed him to be as gruff as he wanted to be in the rest of his scenes. We still knew he was a pushover.

GROUCHO MARX, IN EVERYTHING

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Quite possibly the most devastating comedian who ever lived. Groucho was a verbal master, slicing up his conversational victims with glee. He had so many great lines, there were always extras to be tossed right at the camera. Here’s one from “Animal Crackers”: “This would be a better world for children if the parents had to eat the spinach.”

FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF

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“Ferris Bueller” is a cultural touchstone of the 1980s – something it owes to both Matthew Broderick and the way he made his case directly to moviegoers. It was like having lunch at the cool kids’ table, all day long.

HOUSE OF CARDS

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The current king of this category is Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards,” hands-down. He absolutely commands the TV screen, spinning his intricate web of politics and power. When he turns to the camera, you know you’re about to hear something hideous AND hilarious.

ANNIE HALL

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In “Annie Hall,” you have Woody Allen at the top of his game. At various points, chosen very shrewdly, he tells the audience what he thinks about relationships, therapy and the work of Marshall McLuhan.

MOONLIGHTING

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“Moonlighting,” the popular TV romantic comedy of the 1980s, spent almost as much time beyond the fourth wall as it did in its own world. Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis were naturals at it. I loved when they took a few moments to answer their viewer mail.

30 ROCK

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Tina Fey and Co. broke the fourth wall a bunch of times, but one particular instance was sublime. It’s from the Season Four premiere, when the show aired just before Jay Leno’s ill-fated 10 p.m. variety show. Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy are watching a crass promo for “Tennis Night in America,” when Donaghy says, “There’s nothing wrong with being fun and popular and just giving people what they want.” Then he stares into the camera and purrs, “Ladies and gentlemen, Jay Leno.”

SLEEPWALK WITH ME

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Mike Birbiglia perfectly blends his comic persona with the needs of a feature film by personally narrating key portions of “Sleepwalk With Me,” which is based on his own life. One of his best quips is, “I know! I’m in the future also!”

MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE

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Young Malcolm, the genius child in a family of nutjobs, constantly sought comfort by talking with his TV fans. It was a way of saying, “Is it just me, or are these people crazy?”

JFK

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This example is brief, but powerful. It comes at the end of the film, as Kevin Costner’s prosecutor character tries to make a jury believe there was a hidden conspiracy at work in the Kennedy assassination. With one final move of the camera, the audience suddenly becomes Costner’s jury.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE

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Perhaps this isn’t appropriate, since I’m not including other TV hosts on the List. Oh, hell. I simply have to mention the great Rod Serling. He wasn’t just a host – he was our guide, giving us fair warning about the weird stuff heading our way.

ALFIE

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For me, there’s never been a better fourth wall breakdown than Michael Caine in “Alfie.” With his cold stare and heavy eyelids, Caine is a predator in search of sexual conquest. His confessions to the camera show us his cruelty, his self-delusions and his failure as a human being. It’s brilliant.

Of course, this is a mere sampling of great examples. You also have “Airplane,” “Animal House” and so many others. What are your favorites?

Bad Date Scenes

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Valentine’s Day is drawing near, and that means an awful lot of people are feeling the pressure to put together a magical, romantic date night that will fan the flames of love. Or at least get them to second base. But not to worry. No matter what happens, it’s not likely to be anywhere near as painful as these classic movie scenes of dates gone awry.

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)

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Woody Allen and Dianne Wiest have a hilarious train wreck of a first date in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” one of Allen’s best films. She’s interested in punk rock and drugs, while he’s all about jazz piano and The Great American Songbook. He ends the date by telling her: “I had a great evening. It was like the Nuremberg trials.”

THE GRADUATE (1967)

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This one is a tragically bad date – because Dustin Hoffman is intentionally trying to show Katharine Ross a horrible time, at the request of her mother. He ignores her, belittles her and finally takes her to a strip club, forcing her to sit near the stage. The thing is, he really likes her, and that fact makes her slow transition from excitement to humiliation all the more heartbreaking.

BLIND DATE (1987)

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You’d think a blind date with Kim Basinger would be a good thing, right? Well, not when you have an ex-boyfriend stalking you and you discover your demure date becomes a wild woman after a few drinks. Poor Bruce Willis.

BABY MAMA (2008)

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The great Tina Fey nails it in her bad date scene in “Baby Mama.” Here she is at a nice restaurant with a guy, and rather than ease her way into getting to know him better, she jumps right to the heart of the matter. Marriage may or may not happen some day, she says, but “I’m 37. I want a baby NOW.” The guy’s reaction – excusing himself so he can hail a cab – is perfect.

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989)

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Before Harry and Sally (Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan) get together, they try to set each other up with their best friends (Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher). Naturally, it doesn’t go as planned. My favorite part is when the only conversation Crystal and Fisher can muster has to do with the fact they both grew up in New Jersey.

AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997)

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Although Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt are an incredibly unlikely couple in this film, their attempt at a traditional date is highly entertaining. Despite all odds (and a clothing emergency), things are going pretty well until Jack reveals something that he should have kept to himself. Check, please!

LITTLE CHILDREN (2006)

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Similarly, the first date between Jane Adams and Jackie Earle Haley is doomed in the drama “Little Children.” This one is not for the squeamish. Haley’s character is recently out of prison for exposing himself to a minor, and Adams is a lonely woman looking for a shred of kindness and companionship. It doesn’t go well.

BYE BYE LOVE (1995)

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This one is my favorite. It’s by far the best thing in a truly mediocre movie about divorce and parenting, starring Paul Reiser. About midway through the movie, single dad Randy Quaid finds himself on a date from hell with Janeane Garofalo, who has some … issues. The two are great together, especially Garofalo, as they launch barbs at each other at an Italian restaurant. I’d almost forgotten how good Quaid was before he went nutjob.

But here I am again, monopolizing the conversation. What are YOUR favorite bad date scenes?

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.

Actors You Don’t Expect to See in a Hollywood Musical

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Later this year, we’ll see dramatic tough guy Russell Crowe singing his way through a role in the movie version of “Les Miserables.” That got the staff here at The Jimbo List thinking: how many other unexpected actors have popped up in Hollywood musicals? See what you think.

ALBERT FINNEY IN “ANNIE”

Who could forget Finney as Daddy Warbucks? As I recall, it was something of a shocking choice back in 1982. The movie did okay at the box office, and I thought Finney brought a full-bodied energy to the character – even if he wasn’t necessarily a gifted singer or dancer. And he looked good with the chrome dome.

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN IN “HAIRSPRAY”

Here was some inspired casting, having the sublimely strange Walken play the husband of John Travolta-in-drag. Walken’s warbling isn’t great, but it works fine in this situation. He’s being ironic, sarcastic and yet somehow real, all at once.

CLINT EASTWOOD AND LEE MARVIN IN “PAINT YOUR WAGON”

This casting, on the other hand, did not work. Listen, I love Clint, but his singing sounds like a guy with a mouth full of Saltines trying to hail a cab. Marvin, meanwhile, has a voice so rumbling it needs to be measured by a seismograph. Luckily, the story is funny and bawdy enough to make the singing seem like comic relief.

RICHARD GERE IN “CHICAGO”

Gere deserves plenty of credit for his terrific work in the terrific movie version of “Chicago.” He can’t dance and can’t sing, yet he’s very effective as shady lawyer Billy Flynn. How is this possible? Movie magic, I tell ya.

SUSAN SARANDON IN “ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW”

It’s easy to forget how daring Sarandon’s performance was in “Rocky Horror” in 1975. She played Janet, who went from demure to devilishly sexy during the course of the movie. “Rocky Horror,” of course, became one of the greatest cult films of all time, while Sarandon went on to fame as a dramatic actress.

ROD STEIGER IN “OKLAHOMA”

Hard to picture, isn’t it? Steiger, the sturdy, intense dude from “The Pawnbroker,” as bad guy cowpoke Judd in “Oklahoma”? It’s true, though. Surrey with the fringe on top, indeed.

THE CAST OF “EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU”

Woody Allen assembled perhaps the most unlikely cast for any musical of any era: Edward Norton, Tim Roth, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, Alan Alda, Goldie Hawn and Allen himself. That was the gimmick, actually – the absurdity of these serious people just breaking into song.

JIMMY STEWART IN “BORN TO DANCE”

Later in his career, Mr. Stewart got a lot of mileage out of his crummy crooning in 1936’s “Born to Dance.” He sang a song called “Easy to Love,” and it’s so bad it’s sort of cute.

CHRIS COOPER IN “THE MUPPET MOVIE”

Oh, this is a bad bit of rap. Cooper is a wonderful actor, and he gets props for attempting this, but it’s painful. He plays a bad guy who expresses his greed and low-down ways in a rap song that is best experienced via the fast-forward button.

TREAT WILLIAMS IN “HAIR”

Williams gives this one his all, and I liked his performance. My gripe with the movie is that although it is well made, it was oddly dated by 1979, when it played in theaters. It was a story rooted deeply in the anti-war, hippie culture of the late 1960s; it seemed like a period piece a decade later.

JOHNNY DEPP IN “SWEENEY TODD”

In a movie that surprised audiences with its stylized, graphic violence, Depp does some amazing work. He plays a deranged barber who takes out his grievances with a straight-edged razor. He also does one hell of a lot of singing. Depp doesn’t shy away from a single note.

PIERCE BROSNAN, COLIN FIRTH AND STELLAN SKARSGARD IN “MAMMA MIA!”

I know this was Meryl Streep’s movie, but who in the world gave the green light to Brosnan, Firth & Skarsgard? That trio couldn’t carry a tune even if you spotted them the first two verses and the melody. They’re so bad, in fact, that I developed a new respect for their bravery as performers. We’ve all got to hope there’s never a “Mamma Mia II.”

Let’s keep our fingers crossed for Crowe.

Best Imaginary Friends

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Some fictional characters are more fictional than others. Take imaginary friends, for instance. In movies, TV, books and comic strips, they’re one step removed from the action – but they provide key insights into the minds of other characters. Here are some great ones.

HOBBES

Hobbes is an awesome, witty, slightly moody tiger who roars to life in the mind of a young boy named Calvin. Their comic strip adventures together – snowball fights, wagon rides and the like – are rivaled only by their hilarious banter. Calvin is all about impulse and action; Hobbes is a calmer, more playful influence.

MRS. BEASLEY

Mrs. Beasley, the doll carried around by Buffy (Anissa Jones) on TV’s “Family Affair,” hewed pretty closely to the classic, imaginary friend. She was part security blanket, part confidant, to a little girl who had lost her parents.

TYLER DURDEN

Here was a great role for Brad Pitt. In the 1999 movie “Fight Club,” he got to combine his penchant for bug-eyed comedy with some macho coolness as Durden, a guy who liked to punch and be punched. This film’s cult popularity has taken on a life of its own, and Pitt is the big reason why.

HUMPHREY BOGART

A fictional, imaginary version of Bogie is the gimmick in Woody Allen’s Broadway play and 1972 film, “Play It Again, Sam.” Bogart appears periodically to give Woody dating advice, usually with comic results.

MR. SNUFFLEUPAGUS

Aw, who doesn’t like Snuffy? Here’s the thing, though: Initially, Snuffleupagus was Big Bird’s imaginary friend. No one else around “Sesame Street” could see him. But then the TV show’s producers had a change of heart and made Snuffy a character who interacted with everyone.

TONY

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film “The Shining,” based on the Stephen King novel, has one of the great imaginary friends ever. It’s “Tony,” and he exists only as the bent index finger of a little boy. Tony speaks through young Danny in a croaky voice; he knows there are evil spirits at the deserted mountain resort where Danny’s parents (Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall) are working. In a freaky sort of way, Tony is the only rational character in the whole affair.

HARVEY

Likewise, the audience doesn’t really get to see Harvey, the giant rabbit friend of Jimmy Stewart in the popular 1950 movie, “Harvey.” Although mental illness is certainly brought up in the movie (and stage play version), the central message seems to be that imagination and pleasantness are preferable to conformity and rational intelligence.

CHARLES HERMAN

In “A Beautiful Mind,” imaginary friends (and enemies) hold the protagonist back rather than help him. Paul Bettany played one such friend, Charles, in this acclaimed 2001 movie biography of Nobel prize winner John Nash.

WINNIE THE POOH

Pooh Bear, as everyone knows, headed up a stable of stuffed animal friends for young Christopher Robin in the Hundred Acre Wood. His lumbering, good-natured manner made him all the more endearing.

BIANCA

In the little-seen 2007 movie, “Lars and the Real Girl,” Ryan Gosling plays a disturbed man who pretends a sex doll, Bianca, is his girlfriend. Even more amazing, various relatives and townspeople decide to go along with the idea. Gosling is very good here.

WILSON

Really, has there ever been a ball that sparked so much emotion, outside of the World Cup? Wilson, Tom Hanks’ silent companion in “Cast Away,” was a brilliant construct. Without him, the audience would have been adrift about Hanks’ inner thoughts and gradual descent into madness. WILSON!!!

But those are only MY favorites. Now tell me YOURS.

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?

Best Fireworks on Film & TV

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Hollywood fireworks can’t match the spectacle of a live show in the night sky – but that doesn’t stop movie and TV folks from trying. They use fireworks to illustrate everything from patriotism and protest to love and longing. See for yourself.

LOVE AMERICAN STYLE

I have fond memories of watching this anthology TV series from 1969-74, which was perfect for its era and featured everyone from Flip Wilson to Julie Newmar. Particularly memorable was its intro, which had some groovy fireworks.

MANHATTAN

Woody Allen’s use of fireworks – black and white fireworks, no less – and the music of George Gershwin is nothing short of brilliant. In the opening of his 1979 ode to the Big Apple, Woody shows us a wide shot of fireworks over the city skyline to suggest the excitement and majesty of New York.

LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING

Old Gandalf (Ian McKellen) was sort of the Grucci Brothers of Middle Earth. Here, in the 2001 movie adaptation of the book, Gandalf’s pyrotechnics are peerless.

TO CATCH A THIEF

Ba-Boom! Film fireworks have never been sexier than in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 thriller, starring Grace Kelly and Cary Grant.

V FOR VENDETTA

Fireworks stand for liberty in “V For Vendetta,” a 2005 movie about freedom fighters trying to overturn a fictitious, totalitarian regime. The explosions might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but the fireworks are amazing.

RETURN OF THE JEDI

There’s only one thing to do after you’ve defeated Darth Vader and the Emperor, and you find yourself on a planet full of teddy bears: set off some kickass fireworks. This is how George Lucas did it back in 1983.

MARY POPPINS

In one of the most magical sequences in 1964’s “Mary Poppins,” a fusillade of fireworks chase a group of dancing chimney sweeps off the rooftops of London. Despite one of the goofier British accents in film history, Dick Van Dyke is still too cool for words.

THE GATHERING

What are fireworks doing in this 1977 TV Christmas movie? Well, they’re a sign that you have to live for today. Ed Asner plays a cold, distant father who brings his family together for one last holiday before he meets his maker.

THE BOY WHO COULD FLY

“The Boy Who Could Fly,” from 1986, is not a terribly well-known movie. Among other things, it is the story of a new kid in town who befriends an autistic boy. One of film’s most beautiful scenes is a dreamlike flight with fireworks.

AVALON

Best fireworks scene ever. 1990’s “Avalon” has a lot to say about families and about America, but here it’s simply about one immigrant’s first Fourth of July in Baltimore.

 

 

 

To all those seeing fireworks in the next week, enjoy!

Great Cast, Terrible Movie

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Sometimes, a movie’s casting math just doesn’t add up. You get a couple of terrific leads, surround them with dynamite supporting players and you end up with – a great big mess. It’s quite amazing, actually. Here are some of my favorite, star-studded disasters.

MIXED NUTS (1994)

Get a load of this cast: Steve Martin, Adam Sandler, Jon Stewart, Madeline Kahn, Garry Shandling, Robert Klein and Rob Reiner, plus Liev Schreiber, Rita Wilson, Juliette Lewis and Anthony LaPaglia. Its a comedy juggernaut, except it’s really, really not. This royal stinker, about a suicide hotline at Christmas, is stunningly bad.

AIRPORT ’77

I could have chosen just about any disaster flick of the 1970s, such as “Earthquake,” or “The Towering Inferno,” but this is the one I always found particularly annoying. You had heavyweights such as Jack Lemmon, Jimmy Stewart, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten, M. Emmet Walsh, Christopher Lee and, of course, George Kennedy, all pretending they were in a better movie.

AMERICA’S SWEETHEARTS (2001)

This one is inexplicable. The cast included John Cusack, Julia Roberts, Billy Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Christopher Walken, Stanley Tucci, Alan Arkin, Seth Green and Rainn Wilson. To say this romantic comedy didn’t gel is a vast understatement.

LOVE AFFAIR (1994)

Speaking of bad romantic comedies, this Warren Beatty-Annette Bening picture is one of the worst ever. It’s stultifyingly bad. The thing is, it also dragged down the great Katharine Hepburn, Garry Shandling, Pierce Brosnan, Harold Ramis and Lisa Edelstein with it. This was no way to treat Hollywood royalty.

SHADOWS AND FOG (1991)

I’m using one example here to represent the many, later-period Woody Allen films that wasted great casts. “Shadows and Fog,” an ode to German expressionist films, was a boring movie that seemed to taunt audiences with all the talent going underutilized: Woody, Mia Farrow, John Malkovich, John Cusack, Jodie Foster, Lily Tomlin, Kathy Bates, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Wallace Shawn and Madonna. And that’s just a partial list.

EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY (1988)

Underneath all that colorful fur are Jim Carrey, Damon Wayans and Jeff Goldblum. It’s a shame, really. The movie makes a great effort to be fun and funky – but that fur!? Come on. Also along for the ride are Geena Davis and Michael McKean.

DEATH TO SMOOCHY (2002)

Dark, dark comedy here that might have been too caustic for its own good. It’s a story about egos gone amok in the children’s entertainment industry, with valiant efforts by Robin Williams, Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, Jon Stewart and Danny DeVito. No sale.

SPHERE (1998)

Sorry, but Dustin Hoffman in space does not work for me. When I see Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharon Stone and Liev Schreiber on a cast list together, I want a feisty, gritty urban drama – not a cold, slow-moving space thriller.

THE AVENGERS (1998)

This update on the stylish Brit TV series is a bit of a steaming pile, wot wot. It’s like some horrible hallucination in which Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery, Jim Broadbent and Eddie Izzard recite gibberish and run around in odd clothing. As I mentioned in a previous list, Connery actually dons a teddy bear costume in this one. Yikes.

BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES (1990)

Tom Wolfe’s famous novel about class collisions in New York City made for a glorious train wreck of a film. There was absolutely no chemistry, and often the actors seemed to be taking wild stabs at how to play the material. We may never see Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Kirsten Dunst in another movie together.

That should get us started. Add to The List!

People You Forgot Were in Woody Allen Films

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When you stop and examine the films of Woody Allen, you realize that at least half of Hollywood has worked with this guy. Sometimes it’s a bit part that catches attention years later when the person is more famous, such as Jeff Goldblum in “Annie Hall,” or Zach Braff in “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” Sometimes it’s a bigger role that got lost in the shuffle, like Gene Hackman in “Another Woman.” Either way, in honor of the new Woody Allen documentary on PBS Nov. 20 and 21, here are some Woody Allen actors you might have forgotten.

SETH GREEN

A very young Seth Green played Woody’s narrator character as a young boy growing up in 1930s Queens in “Radio Days.” Green is very good in the 1987 film; my favorite scene is when he uses his Masked Avenger Secret Decoder Ring.

MADONNA

The always interesting Madonna shows up in Woody’s “Shadows and Fog” in 1991 as a circus artist having an affair with a clown played by John Malkovich. Both her wardrobe and her screen time are scant.

ROBIN WILLIAMS

Williams had a small role in 1997’s “Deconstructing Harry.” I liked this movie quite a bit, but there were so many cameos that they got distracting. Even sportscaster Joe Buck found a way into this one.

TRUMAN CAPOTE

I love this. In a scene from 1977’s “Annie Hall,” Woody is joking with Diane Keaton about a guy on the street who looks like he won a “Truman Capote look-alike contest.” In fact, it IS Capote. Nice.

STEVE CARELL

What’s weird about Carell’s cameo in 2004’s “Melinda and Melinda” is that it doesn’t tap into either one of Mr. C’s tendencies: his absurd, outlandish comedy characters or his sweet, everyman characters.

BURT REYNOLDS

Reynolds was intensely understated in “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)” in 1972. He and Tony Randall were part of the team of people working in Woody’s brain to get him through a dinner date and sex.

LEWIS BLACK

How cool is it to watch “Hannah and Her Sisters” from 1986 and suddenly find comedian Lewis Black walking down the hall with Woody? This movie is filled with cameos by famous (or eventually famous) people: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Turturro, J.T. Walsh, Richard Jenkins, Benno Schmidt.

EDIE FALCO

Despite the brevity of Falco’s role in “Bullets Over Broadway” from 1994, it proved to be a pivotal break in her acting career. You know who else has a bit part in this film? Tony Sirico, who would achieve fame with Falco in “The Sopranos.”

SAUL BELLOW

Literary lion Saul Bellow was a perfect choice to be among the famous commentators in “Zelig,” Woody’s 1983 film about a guy who spent a good deal of the 20th century assimilating too much.

JIMMY FALLON

Thank goodness Fallon was already famous before his small part in 2003’s “Anything Else.” Not many people went to see this one, which was something of a return to the relationship territory of “Annie Hall,” for a new generation.

PAUL GIAMATTI

The fantastic Paul Giamatti was in two of Woody’s movies:  1995’s “Mighty Aphrodite,” and 1997’s “Deconstructing Harry.” I preferred “Deconstructing Harry.”

SIGOURNEY WEAVER

You’ll just have to take my word for this one. At the end of the great “Annie Hall,” Woody meets up with his ex-girlfriend, Diane Keaton, outside a movie theater. Each is with a date – in Woody’s case, a young Sigourney Weaver.

MILTON BERLE

Berle played himself in 1984’s “Broadway Danny Rose,” which is one of my favorite movies. Woody is a low-rent talent agent who handles a club singer with a shot at being in a Berle TV special.

BRENT SPINER

I’ll end with a truly obscure one. Star Trek’s favorite android, Data, showed up as “fan in lobby” in “Stardust Memories” from 1980. Woody’s at a film festival of his character’s “older, funnier” films.

That’s all, folks, although there are many, many more examples: Liam Neeson in “Husbands and Wives,” Dan Aykroyd in “Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” Bella Abzug in “Manhattan” …

Calling All Movie Fans – Best Phones in Films

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Phone technology may have changed wildly over the past 100 years – from those nutty handsets that looked like metal daffodils to today’s sleek cells – but it hasn’t stopped screenwriters and directors from putting phones front and center at key moments in the action. Here are some of my favorite movie phone moments.

THE STORY OF ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL (1939)

Might as well start with the birth of the telephone. Don Ameche does his able best as inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who makes the first successful phone call when he spills a chemical on his lap and inadvertently phones his assistant, Mr. Watson (Henry Fonda),  in another room.

HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)

This is more like it. In one of the best films of all time, Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant play fast-talking newshounds who make a row of old phones look like cutting-edge technology. They swing those handsets around like samurai swords, carrying on multiple conversations at lightning speed.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)

Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart played one of the most romantic phone scenes in movie history here, when they shared an earpiece and receiver. Makes you wonder how many potential relationships have been spoiled by speakerphone.

DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954)

A fateful phone call is the centerpiece of  Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant thriller. A devious husband (Ray Milland) has blackmailed a thug to murder his unfaithful wife (Grace Kelly). The murder is set to  take place when the wife answers the phone, except …

PILLOW TALK (1959)

This silly film about gender politics and double identities grows sillier and more odd with each passing year. That said, it is undeniably iconic in its look and sensibility – including its enthusiastic use of the split-screen phone call.

FAIL-SAFE (1964)

This, for a generation, was the ultimate phone call: The one between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. that would determine whether global nuclear war would occur. Our old friend Fonda plays the American president who must come to terms with the Soviet premier as warheads threaten the world. What’s terrific here is the cold, unfeeling vibe the phone itself exudes.

ANNIE HALL (1977)

Amid the many killer jokes in “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen includes two great phone bits. One is the way Tony Roberts keeps calling his office to tell his “people” where he can be reached. The other is Jeff Goldblum’s cameo as a guy calling his therapist because he can’t remember his mantra.

THE VERDICT (1982)

What an incredible actor Paul Newman was. I’ve watched this film many times and I always marvel at Newman’s total commitment as a washed-up attorney with one last chance at redemption. Much of the character’s desperation comes through in phone calls. Not only that, but the entire movie hinges on – wait for it – a phone bill. Swear to God. And there’s a ringing phone in the final scene that is absolutely haunting.

LOCAL HERO (1983)

Movies don’t come any sweeter than director Bill Forsyth’s story of an American oil company stooge (Peter Riegert) who is sent to purchase an entire Scottish fishing village in order to build a refinery. Scotland here is a magical realm, and the only connection to the corrupt, wider world is this little phone booth.

WALL STREET (1987)

Far from a great movie, but it speaks strongly to a particular American era. Never before, and never after, would you see those dopey, gigantic mobile phones.

GOODFELLAS (1990)

For another view of phone booths, check out Martin Scorsese’s mob masterpiece (okay, ONE of his mob masterpieces). Robert DeNiro beats the crap out of this phone booth, after getting some sad news about poor Joe Pesci.

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992)

It’s kind of a perfect, profane time capsule of great writing and acting. David Mamet’s penetrating drama about shabby real estate salesmen just oozes with delusion and deception. All the icky sales calls are just icing on a rancid cake.

SCREAM (1996)

Give Drew Barrymore her due. She nailed this scene in the ironic/iconic  horror flick “Scream.” Tell me it didn’t give you a chill when Ghostface asked, “What’s your favorite scary movie?”

THE MATRIX (1999)

Let me be clear. I love “The Matrix.” Love it. But there’s something hilarious and crazy about the way so much of this film revolved around trying to find a decent landline.

PHONE BOOTH (2002)

The third of our phone booth trilogy, this one I think does a great job of using phone technology to make a point about how exposed we feel as individuals in an increasingly-watchful society. Then again, I could be way off. It’s a Colin Farrell thriller, after all.

THE DEPARTED (2006)

To me, this is the best use of the modern phone in a major film. Another Scorsese mob picture (this one set in Boston), it allows its characters to use their cell phones just as often as real people do. There’s even texting! But you know what I liked most? The way Jack Nicholson’s mob boss opened and closed his cell in an aggressive manner that completely mirrored his King Of All Men attitude.

So those are my picks. What are yours? This is The Jimbo List, signing off.