THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (June, 2017 Edition)

As before….reverse order…catch as catch can. 20 days, 10 movies.

June 1-Return of Sabata (1971, Gianfranco Parolini, 1st Viewing)

Because I keep hoping there’s more to spaghetti westerns than Sergio Leone. Perhaps there is. The Sabata films aren’t it. Recommendations welcome.

June 4-The Far Country (1955, Anthony Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the most narratively complex of Mann’s western outings with James Stewart, all of which are fantastic, narratively and every other way. This one has more politics, more death and a great John McEntire villain. I used to count it least among the Mann/Stewart collaborations. If Corrine Calvert’s shirttail kid ever grows on me the way Ruth Roman’s saloon mistress has, it just might become my favorite.

June 7-Deadpool (2016, Tim Miller, 1st Viewing)

Visiting with friends, so off my beaten path. Not without its charms, but its own idea that its faux-nihilism is “edgy” (shared by many a critic last summer) is by far the movie’s funniest element. When I heard twenty f-words in two minutes, I kept thinking about an average kvetching session at my office breaks ten years ago (when I still occasionally hung around an office) and all I could hear was Rooster Cogburn saying “This is like women talking.” Which leads me to wonder: Is it that the scriptwriters know….or that they don’t know? It does have Morena Baccarin and a sappy ending straight out of 1939, so there’s that.

June 15-Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, Gareth Edwards, 1st Viewing)

Still visiting. But not quite so far off the path. I do try to keep up. I suspect if I’d seen it in the theater I’d have enjoyed it more than any Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back, though that’s not saying a whole lot. As usual, the best and liveliest character was a droid. Shouldn’t that be telling somebody something by now?

June 17-The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich, Umpteenth Viewing)

Home. Can you tell? Time for a palate cleanser to get the road dust out of my mouth. But, besides that, for the care which so many good actors took to etch something memorable out of what could have been rote or even cardboard characters. Everybody who gets any time is perfect–Jim Brown every bit as committed to getting it right as John Cassevetes, and vice versa–and Aldrich always did know his stuff. Is it a good sign that I never can remember exactly who gets out alive? I can’t say, but I still hold my breath.

June 18-Dawn at Socorro (1954, George Sherman, Umpteenth Viewing)

For it’s subtle foregrounding of the saloon life that’s hanging around in the background of hundreds of westerns and shoved to the front in dozens more with far less effect. For some of the most beautiful technicolor cinematography, inside and out, of any western (meaning any film). For the precision and economy of a deceptively languid plot (which fooled me into thinking not much was going on the first time I watched it). For Piper Laurie, stopping the barroom buzz for the length of a held breath the first time she walks into the saloon that’s going to swallow her. For the best use of a train station between High Noon and How the West Was Won. For the way Edgar Buchanan’s desiccated sheriff reads the script’s funniest lines as though he’s daring somebody–anybody–to laugh. And for the way Rory Calhoun’s trying-to-go-straight gunfighter says “My past. Every dark, miserable day of it.” when he’s asked if he knows who’s coming for him, just before he steps into the street to find out how many more men he has to kill to save a girl he met on the stage twenty-four hours earlier from ever having to say the same.

June 19-The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966, Michael O’Herlihy, Umpeenth Viewing)

For Disney’s last great swashbuckler–and, unless you count Star Wars (which owed more to Disney than anyone likes to admit), Hollywood’s. And for being no worse as “history” (upon which it is loosely based) than a lot of films which had far less excuse for taking liberties. Highlighted by Peter McEnery’s burning intensity as the lead. Even if we was English-playing-Irish, he looks, sounds and moves like the sort of charismatic lad who would inspire deep loyalties among friends and deeper hatreds among enemies (the latter portrayed nicely here by a memorably snake-like Scottish-playing-English Gordon Jackson). The duels and sieges are on a human scale and there’s a rare moment in the final assault when the burning, age-old hatred between Irish and English can be viscerally felt as the Irishmen try to retake a castle where their women are being held hostage. I might have fonder memories than most because this is the first “new” movie I can recall seeing in a theater, just before my sixth birthday. I don’t pretend to objectivity. But I’ve seen it many times since–the first time after one of those thirty-year searches which are bound to raise unreasonable expectations–and it’s never failed to make me smile.

June 19-White Heat (1948, Raoul Walsh, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the only film that’s definitive as noir, gangster and prison flick without being limited by the conventions of those or any other genre. For Jimmy Cagney’s Psycho, Edmond O’Brien’s undercover G-Man, Virginia Mayo’s Two-Timing Moll and Margaret Wycherly’s Ma Barker spin, all definitive as hell. If the finale doesn’t go right through your spine, you probably ain’t alive.

June 20-Guilty as Sin (1993, Sidney Lumet, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the absence of illusions about where the world was heading when it was made. Released a year before the O.J. Simpson murders and two years before the trial, it has a lot of the more cynical elements nailed in place. I think it hasn’t gotten more credit because it deals in class rather than race and race is what a lot of people still think the Simpson trial was about (it’s much easier that way). Also for Lumet’s use of sound….I’ve watched this, at times, with my eyes closed and it makes a fantastic radio drama. But it’s hard work not watching, because Don Johnson and Rebecca DeMornay have what they used to call chemistry…only it’s hate chemistry and when two people that attractive have that going you have to conclude either something’s going on off-screen or they’re much better at this acting thing than they’ve been given credit for. Be careful of this one. It seems conventional–like civilization hasn’t necessarily run off the rails–but it’s liable to sneak up on you.

June 20-Stagecoach (1939, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

What, you think I need a reason to watch Stagecoach? Not hardly. But if you need a reason, watch for the way Ford introduces practically everyone pictured here in the space of about eight minutes and never lets you forget them. Orson Welles screened it forty times while he was filming Citizen Kane, just so he could make you remember half that many people half as well…and he just about got what he needed for his greatest film from what might not rank in Ford’s top ten.

…Til next time!

MEET THE NEW SPIES, NOT QUITE THE SAME AS THE OLD SPIES (Segue of the Day: 10/23/15)

Homeland: Season 4 and Bridge of Spies (WARNING: Spoilers included)

homeland4

My, how time flies. Seems like only yesterday I was pondering Homeland‘s Season 1 and wondering just how far Claire Danes could take Carrie Mathison and this week I was binge-watching Season 4, which was easily the strongest season since the first. Not that she, or the show, have ever really backed off, as I feared they might. The basic concept, that we’re now in the hands of crazy people with conveniently shifting moral codes (shifting that is, for their own convenience and if that happens to coincide with “national security” aren’t we all lucky!) because who else would ever want to  be part of this game, has remained intact.

But, Damian Lewis’s Nicholas Brody wasn’t exactly the highlight of Season 1 (either as a character or a performance) and he and his family situation became a real drag on Seasons 2 and 3. Frankly I had always believed any chance to look at Morena Baccarin, who played Brody’s long-suffering wife, doing absolutely anything at all was worth whatever one had to go through, but Brody made me seriously question my commitment. That he ended up dying a heroic death while Carrie was pregnant with his baby didn’t exactly set my little patch of woods on fire. Better for Carrie, Danes and the show if she had offed him.

Well that didn’t happen but at least he’s gone and that meant there was a possibility they (character, actress and Homeland) could all get back to pushing the envelope: And that’s exactly what they did.

I’m amazed that some of this show’s fans/critics get concerned with things like the plausibility of some bit of narrative (or just the whole thing) or whether the show is sufficiently sensitive to the Other.

Good lord.

The “narrative” is that this woman is as crazy as a loon. She can’t possibly operate anywhere except deep inside a security state that could care less about its own side as anything but a cocoon to exist within, let alone any Other that might exist for any reason except to give the cocoon a reason to keep on keeping on.

And she will do absolutely anything to stay embedded in the only world that will have her.

Oh sure, they have subplots and all. Carrie having a baby which her sister has to take care of, or her long estranged mom showing up at her dad’s funeral gives everybody a chance to pretend she’s got problems just like the rest of us. But that’s all a crock, just like Brody’s various family problems were in the first three seasons. Carrie’s crazy. That’s what the show’s about.

Oh, and, on the big things, Carrie’s right. I mean, she would be wouldn’t she?

Inside the house of vile mirrors we now call a government, who but a crazy person with the moral compass of a hungry cat could be expected to see anything at all? Every time she doesn’t kill people, even more people die. And when she’s stopped from killing Saul Berenson at mid-season here (in as good as scene as anybody’s ever going to play on television), not only do lots more people die as a result, but Saul himself (still being played by a Mandy Patinkin who keeps pulling off the miracle of being Danes’ equal, as both performer and character, a miracle that will sink the show if it ever stops happening, because it’s clear by now that Danes, who might be the first actor/producer who is applying the Method full bore crazy at both ends, is going to wipe everybody else off the screen if he doesn’t keep popping in every ten minutes) loses a piece of his soul.

Apparently Season 5 is going to be about whether he can buy it back. At least they set it up that way. And at this point, I’m almost convinced they’ll all be brave enough to realize he can’t. That is, they’ll be brave enough to realize nobody can, even if they don’t believe in souls.

bridgeofspies

Which brings be to Bridge of Spies, which. after a long night cozying up to Homeland, I finally caught on a fourth try (many long stories involving missed times, no need to bore you further) and which exemplifies Steven Speilberg’s efforts to hold on to the notion that, if we were sane once, we might be sane again, if we could only remember how to find our way back.

I’m skeptical.

I too, would like to believe that having people of principle in positions of responsibility is still a viable option. But we’ll need to find new definitions for most of the words in that sentence, something like a new language, before we can even hope to grope our way forward out of the new darkness. Finding a way back usually just means going backwards and, if we go backwards from where we are right now–in the world Homeland does such a good job of delineating–we’ll either head straight to Tyranny or make one stop at Chaos along the way.

That said, this is a fine effort. Speilberg’s a romantic of the old school, so it’s always a bit touching to see him operating in a world where he’s now so clearly an anachronism. But he seems to have realized this about himself, and, if he can’t quite excise his tendency to go woozy on occasion, even with a Coen Brothers script helping (whatever their multitude of sins, overt sentimentality isn’t one of them), he at least keeps the vice to a minimum here and creates a genuine nostalgia for Cold War clarity and an old fashioned decency that would have Saul Berenson and Carrie Mathison wondering just what Tom Hanks’ Jim Donovan is really up to.

So, in a way, Bridge of Spies, trapped in a past that’s as far from us as the Old West was from John Ford, and is, unlike Ford’s west, no longer deemed worth remembering and thus dying a quick death at the box office, is simultaneously mired as deeply in the modern malaise as Homeland.

But Claire Danes is the real auteur now. Unless, of course, somewhere deep inside the security state where we can’t see, there’s some real life version of Carrie Mathison running loose at at the back of it all, absolutely convinced she can keep us safe from everyone but herself.