FAVORITE FILMS….FOR EACH YEAR OF MY LIFE…BY DECADE…CUE THE EIGHTIES

So we come to the Eighties….I almost said alas.

But the best films were better than the decade deserved. This might be the last time I can say this…

1980 The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie) (A good year…but nothing else was close)

1981 Blow Out (Brian DePalma) (over Eye of the Needle and Southern Comfort)

1982 Diner (Barry Levinson) (over Blade Runner and Victor/Victoria)

1983 Baby It’s You (John Sayles)

1984 Secret Honor (Robert Altman) (over The Terminator and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom)

1985 Prizzi’s Honor (John Huston) (over The Purple rose of Cairo, Sweet Dreams and Desperately Seeking Susan…Good year for comedy. As I recall, we needed it.)

1986 Something Wild (Jonathan Demme) (over F/X and Peggy Sue Got Married)

1987 The Bedroom Window (Curtis Hanson) (over Hope and Glory, which I probably need to see again)

1988 Midnight Run (Martin Brest) (over Beetlejuice and Running on Empty)

1989 Glory (Edward Zwick) (over Dead Calm, Black Rain and Black Rainbow)

At the top, at least ,the eighties were a strong decade on film. With the possible exception of 1987, every one of these films would have been strong contenders in just about any year of the previous two decades, about whom few have been heard to complain. 1980 and 1983 were as good as it gets.

Who knows? Maybe the nineties won’t be so bad….

Okay. I won’t get my hopes up.

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

Previous rules apply… Reverse order. Umpteenth viewing means it’s a lot and too much trouble to count. Etc….42 days, 10 movies)

February 6-Where Eagles Dare (967, Brian Hutton, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the crackerjack plot (not usually the first thing that comes to mind in a thriller). For the headlong fusion of momentum and anarchy that Quentin Tarantino and his arty acolytes are forever running out of breath trying to catch. For Richard Burton’s voice, which could make lines like “Broadsword calling Danny Boy” sing. And for the Polish actress, Ingrid Pitt, who has maybe ten minutes of screen time and who, if she had been allowed to kill as many Germans as the perfectly respectable female lead, Mary Ure, would have been the sexiest thing in the history of film. She’s pretty close as it is.

February 12-The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (962, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

I always watch top-tier John Ford films with an idea of getting to the bottom of them. I never do. What, you think it’s possible to get to the bottom of a film where  Ken Maynard’s seventh billed Doc Willoughby is in a bar, falling off his feet, declaiming “Gettysburg? You’ve heard of Gettysburg? Two hundred and forty-two amputations in one…” and, the fifteenth time you watch it, you realize that he’s just explained why there are so many drunken doctors in post-Civil War westerns? Or that anyone but Ford would have cut the line off so that you never know One What?…Day? Week? Battle? Hour?

Okay, Robert Altman maybe…but he would have insisted on you noticing.

February 13-Dial M for Murder (1954, Alfred Hitchcock, Umpteenth Viewing)

So I can feel chic, of course. Not an everyday occurrence but sometimes even I have to digress from the norm. I save this for the rare occasions when I don’t want to feel like I’m seeing too much of how the world is made. That’s what happens when I watch Andrew Davis’s superb (I’d even say superior) 90s remake, A Perfect Murder. Sometimes you just need to escape into a world where John Williams’ dour Scotland Yard Chief Inspector can handle Ray Milland as he smiles and smiles and remains such a perfect villain you can easily imagine him wanting to off Grace Kelly for God’s sake.

February 19-Run of the Arrow (957, Samuel Fuller, First Viewing)

Because it was mostly unavailable and legendary for decades. And it’s a 50s western. Worth the wait? Yes. The fine performances you would expect from Rod Steiger, Brian Keith, Ralph Meeker. Plus a sympathetic view of not only Native Americans, but the staunchest of the Confederate holdouts and their own curious brand of honor. On a first viewing I didn’t come away thinking I’d seen a masterpiece. But it was moving and intriguing enough for me to know this won’t be my last visit…And, oh by the way, that’s a poster.

February 19-The Lion in Winter (968, Anthony Harvey, Second Viewing)

To see–and hear–Pete and Kate converse. Not as good as Becket (which just missed this list). Not as good as a local stage version I saw a decade or so back. But if you like your politics literate and bit unstable…

February 20-Blow Out (981, Brian DePalma, Third Viewing)

Speaking of unstable. For the modern zeitgeist. For career best performances from John Travolta, John Lithgow and, especially, Nancy Allen (playing the kind of woman who is almost always treated with contempt in American film and American life) and for the one DePalma film I’ve seen that justifies his reputation. I understand the mixed responses, then and now. I didn’t get it the first time I watched it way back when. A subsequent viewing set me straight. This third viewing confirmed its value. The one film from the eighties which had to wait for the world to catch up to it? To everyone’s regret?

Yeah, that could mix a response or two.

February 23-A Fistful of Dollars (964, Sergio Leone, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well, because one of the twitter writers I follow (Mark Harris wrote something interesting about the Man With No Name Trilogy. This is my least favorite of the three by far but it’s still pretty entertaining. I kind of like that it takes a classic, flawless story-line and turns it into a fever dream which might even lift the eyebrow of a modern Hollywood producer.**

I realize that’s saying something.

(**Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, was turned into a samurai movie, 1961’s Yojimbo, by Akira Kurosawa, who later successfully sued Leone for copyright infringement, even though neither he nor Leone ever credited Hammett, or, it seems, quite admitted they borrowed from it.)

February 25-Rush Hour (998, Brett Ratner, Third Viewing)

Because I was flipping channels and it was just beginning. And because the Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker chemistry jumps off the screen every time. It jumps off the way Fred and Ginger and Myrna and Bill still do. Only modern Hollywood would have wasted the new version on two uninspired sequels and left it at that.

March 20-The Law and Jake Wade (958, John Sturges, Umpteenth Viewing)

For perhaps the best of Robert Taylor’s many fine stoic leads. For Richard Widmark’s riveting turn as what amounts to a jilted lover. For the coiling tension in a script that serves as a reminder that spurned friendship can burn as deep as the worst fights between siblings or spouses. For the way Taylor’s shoulders slump at the end of a final showdown that’s on a par with Winchester ’73. (No surprise given John Sturges in the director’s chair.) And for a standout supporting cast, led by Robert Middleton’s sad-eyed outlaw lieutenant and Henry Silva’s messed up kid, always keeping one eye open for the chance to be captain.

March 20-Experiment in Terror (962, Blake Edwards, Umpteenth Viewing)

Crisp. The opening sequence is as good as it gets. It brings the “terror” close enough that it never stops resonating, even in the few relatively mundane spots of what is essentially a well-made procedural. And it’s always worth remembering a time when the sisters next door could be played, believably, by the likes of Lee Remick and Stefanie Powers, even if it comes at the cost of also believing the FBI can protect you.

…Til next time.

THE RAMBLIN’ MAN REACHES OUT….AND TAKES HOLD (What Impressed Me This Week)

Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave
David Acomba, Director (1980)

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Serendipity and fair’s fair.

Without Greil Marcus going on about this back in 1990 (when it re-aired on the Nashville Network and Marcus evidently thought it was new) and me reading about it in his newly collected Real Life Rock columns and then, mere days later, coming across a cheap copy in the dollar store just down the road that I only started going to a few months back because I discovered they sold the hydrocortisone salve I occasionally use on an unspeakable rash for a quarter less than the one right next to my house this never would have found it’s way to my DVD player and I’d be a poorer man without even knowing it.

Without benefit of either looking or sounding much like the original, Canadian country singer Sneezy Waters, who had played the role on stage for years, inhabits Williams the same way Philip Baker Hall inhabited Richard Nixon in Secret Honor a few years later. As with Hall, I spent the first minute thinking “this is never gonna work.” Then the second minute arrived and the meaningful distinctions between actor, role and role model disappeared. I never concluded whether this was more reassuring than disorienting but I was riveted either way. Five minutes in, I knew there weren’t going to be any bathroom breaks.

The setup is simple enough (and enough like Secret Honor to make me wonder if Robert Altman saw this when it first aired). Hank is taking his famous last ride through an Appalachian night (he died in the back seat of his chauffeured car somewhere between Bristol, Virginia and Oak Hill, West Virginia), and, drifting in and out of consciousness, he dreams of stopping off and giving a show in one of the small town bars where, by chance, his band is already set up and waiting in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd who could probably never afford a trip to the Opry.

You can watch movies a long time and never find anyone walking a tighter wire than Waters, director Acomba and playwright/screenwriter Maynard Collins do here. Part of the tension in a first viewing of something like this is in wondering if/when somebody will set a foot wrong. When it never happens, there’s an almost palpable sense of relief, because the slightest slip, the one that always feels like it’s coming any second now, would wreck the mood.

It never happens here.This is one of those instances where even the technical limitations work entirely in the movie’s favor. That scene pictured above is just about what the movie looks like and while some of that is probably due to a low-grade transfer I had a feeling a pristine copy wouldn’t look much better. It certainly wouldn’t work any better, because anything clearer wouldn’t let you smell the smoke and whiskey.

Most remarkably, it’s all in there. The Hank Williams Story. Between his songs, the stories he tells to set them up, the bitter remonstrances of his waking moments in the back seat of his Doom-mobile, you get a  distillation that touches everything essential and has a feeling of completion, as though he (Williams himself, more than the actor or the filmmakers) is scripting his own life and planning to live just long enough to reach the only end that was ever possible.

And the biggest part of that story isn’t the alcoholism or the Dr. Feelgoods or marriage or divorce or fatherhood or spats with the band or even the Death’s Head hanging over his shoulder. No, the biggest part, and the part the movie catches so well it’s literally breathtaking is the connection to his audience, the final quality that made him the standard country singers–and country lives–were measured against for half a century.

Until, that is, very, very recently.

The people who clap and dance and fight and “Hallelujah!” their way through this film’s imaginary show aren’t represented as characters, but they aren’t reduced to types either. They have a collective life and three-dimensionality that goes beyond even the air of lives being lived that deepens John Ford’s universe.  And, whether seen as extras in a low-budget movie that started filming the day John Lennon was assassinated, or literal ghosts of the audience Hank Williams must have sometimes felt he had dreamed into being, there will be a day in the not too distant future when they’ll be unrecognizable. A twenty-year-old might have trouble recognizing them now. Living in a world where it’s always Saturday night has not only robbed Williams’ principal themes of longing and regret of the force they had for the audience that swirls back and forth between him and you while this film is running, it’s also taken the fun out of Saturday night itself.

Whether it was possible to self-consciously articulate this lost world’s distance from the present in 1980, I don’t know. But the feelings inherent in the loss must have at least been available to the senses, because without even calling on “Lost Highway” or “Ramblin’ Man” (there is a chilling version of “Alone and Forsaken”), Sneezy Waters and company managed to write themselves into the Hank Williams story and enlarge an already legendary life it in a way I’ve seldom encountered in any movie, let alone a “biopic” that consists entirely of a car-ride and a fake concert that never happened.

I’m sure it’s possible to see this and write it off. It’s not Citizen Kane. On some level, it’s barely even there.

But I’d advise approaching it with caution

If it gets you, it might not let you go.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Keith Carradine Nails Wild Bill Hickok, Gets Killed For His Pains)

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(John Hawkes and Timothy Olyphant, each assaying his entire range of facial expressions in Deadwood, and Keith Carradine as Wild Bill Hickok)

It may not always be obvious, but I really do prefer to accentuate the positive. So when I finally caught up to Deadwood this week, David Milch’s “revisionist/realist” vision of the west that ran on HBO from 2004 to 2006, I was hoping–against what I knew were long odds based on what I’d read and various clips I’d seen over the years–that I could find something good to say about it.

Not too long into the first episode, I realized it had one very good thing, which was Keith Carradine’s riveting performance of Wild Bill Hickok, a mytho-historical figure who has probably been portrayed on screen only slightly less often than Wyatt Earp and Jesse James.

Naturally, I didn’t want it to stop there. I looked really hard for a second good thing. Ten episodes in, I haven’t found it, unless having my suspicions confirmed that–given the bright “creative” minds involved–not much was likely to be very realistic and nothing at all was going to be revised counts as a positive.

I actually consider that last to be sort of value-neutral, so Carradine as Wild Bill it is.

I’ll admit it’s not a small thing.

I’m sure the script called for Hickok to meet his famous demise at the end of the fourth episode before Carradine was even cast. But, if it hadn’t, they probably would have needed to move the enterprise  forward. Based on the ten episodes I’ve seen so far, letting him hang around for even four episodes might have been a mistake, because having even one person walk through this drag-ass exercise in po-mo pretension for four seconds (let alone four episodes) who looks, sounds, moves and behaves like someone who might have actually lived a life worth telling  a story about–in the Old West or anywhere else–just knocks the whole enterprise sideways.

Once the famous fatal bullet finds its mark in the back of Will Bill’s head, we’re left with Ian McShane’s Al-Pacino-In-The-West bluster (I’d call it one-note but that’s giving it credit for far too much dimension) and Timothy Olyphant’s thousand-yard-stare (which, if, as I suspect, is his version of the laconic western hero, has given me a whole new measure of appreciation for Gary Cooper which I wouldn’t have previously believed either necessary or possible) and Milch’s evident belief that adding three “fucks” and a “cocksucker” to lines nobody who knows anything at all about “the West” as either history or myth could possibly read with a straight face to begin with will make it all come good in the end.

But, for all that, I’m still grateful Carradine got to assay his Hickok in something or other, and, while I regret he didn’t get the stage he deserved (preferably in something scripted by Charles Portis or Thomas Berger) I still have to honor a performance that gives us both a definitive version of the cold-eyed killer we’ve seen so often…

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and one we haven’t seen at all….

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(NOTE: Going over Carradine’s IMDB listing to see what all I might have missed I was reminded that he was a Robert Altman regular in the seventies. Robert Altman, if we didn’t thank you then–for this and many other gifts–we thank you now!)