THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (July 2019)

Boy, almost six months since my last one…I had no idea.

June 15-The Break-Up (2006, d. Peyton Reed, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it was marketed as a comedy when it’s really a drama with funny moments. I don’t know if it’s Jennifer Aniston’s best performance (there’s plenty of competition) and she’ll always be most iconic for Friends. But it’s her zeitgeist performance–the one I’d point to if somebody asked my why the culture has clung to her so tightly, even desperately, since the moment she walked through the door of the coffee shop as Rachel Green a quarter-century ago. I saw this in the theater the day it came out with two hundred black women. Nobody actually shouted “You go, girl!” but it’s the most engaged I’ve ever seen an audience. Every time I’ve seen it since, it’s boldness has grown on me. There are plenty of standard elements and they don’t all work, but there’s also an art film in there trying to get out. That it doesn’t quite might say more about the times than any of the many elements that do work, including Jon Favreau’s best friend from hell.

June 15-Detour (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer, 2nd Viewing)

Because I’m always hearing it’s the king of the B-noirs or something and my memories of catching it in FSU’s old, ratty Moore Auditorium were vague and unsatisfying. I thought more of it this time around, maybe because I now realize and accept that Ann Savage’s legendary performance was supposed to grate on me. I can grant it it’s place. But I still think Gloria Grahame would have done it better. You could always understand why some poor sap would get himself in a fix over her.

June 16-Tension (1949, d. John Berry, 2nd Viewing)

This was actually finishing up a project–I’d been watching the ten films from one of my noir box sets and this was the last (had to wait on a replacement because the original copy wouldn’t play). I didn’t have much memory of it one way or another from the first time I worked my way through the box a few years back but I probably should have. It’s B-noir queen Audrey Totter’s zeitgeist performance which is saying something because she was all presence in every B-noir she ever did. As the schmuck, Richard Basehart acts, as the good girl Cyd Charisse tries to. She comes off better. Talent wasn’t always a virtue when the budgets were small and redemptive genius (the kind an Edgar Ulmer might supply) was in short supply.

June 16-The Big Clock (1948, d. John Farrow,  4th Viewing)

For Charles Laughton, as the boss from Hades (and therefore everybody’s life!) and for Kenneth Fearing’s ingenious story of a man assigned to investigate himself for a murder he’s been framed for but didn’t commit. It’s tick-tock perfect and the only reason I haven’t seen it far more often is that, until now, I didn’t own it. And was anybody ever better at playing the Man Who Might Have Done it, But Didn’t than Ray Milland? Thought not.

June 17-No Way Out (1987, d. Roger Donaldson, 4th Viewing)

This is a remake of The Big Clock, so why not? It’s the first time I’ve watched them back to back. The move from Big Business to Big Government adds weight and, oddly, the Cold War setting hasn’t dated. The plot runs on paranoia and there’s never a shortage of that near power centers of any kind in any age. As for comparisons to the original? The cast here is even more uniformly excellent. Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, Will Patton are all top notch. The runaway honors, though, go to Sean Young. She’s as far above the crowd here as the great Laughton was in the original. And whatever happened to her? Did she get Weinstein-ed? Is that a question we’re going to ask about every promising actress who burst too briefly across the sky for a generation?

June 18-Swing Time (1936) d. George Stevens, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well, I don’t need much excuse to watch Fred and Ginger but the impetus this time was pretty specific: Whit Stillman, as close as I have to a favorite among modern film-makers, dogged it on Twitter (as a response to it being recently re-released by Criterion). Watching it yet again, with his criticism in mind I could kind of see his point: It does meander a bit and the support isn’t quite up to that of Top Hat or a few of the others. The plot is more a contrivance than usual (and in Fred and Ginger pictures, that’s saying something).Every ten minutes or so, though, they dance. Never more divinely than the climactic sequence which required fifty takes and left Ginger’s feet in bloody shreds. When somebody noticed, they asked if she wanted to stop.

Not on your life.

June 18-Daddy Long Legs (1955, d. Jean Negulesco, Umpteenth Viewing)

I’m pretty sure nothing here took fifty takes–not even “The Slewfoot”. For one thing Astaire was twenty years older. Twenty years in the life of a hoofer is like twenty years in the life of an athlete. Things wear out. What had not worn out, what had, in fact, only grown with time, was Fred’s ineffable charm. Seeing this back to back with one of his classic thirties films, I was struck most by how much he had improved as an actor. Here and Funny Face (his next, with Audrey Hepburn), were the chances he had to work with actresses of sufficient skill to match him. There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who don’t like Leslie Caron and those who would sit through two hours of anything to hear her say “That’s okay. Let’s destroy my reputation.” I love this movie anyway, but you know to which category I belong.

The rest of ya’ll amuse me.

June 19-48 Hours (1982, d. Walter Hill, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because every time I watch it, I swear it’s the last. Then the day comes when I have to revisit it for old time’s sake and to see whether I’ll find the classic seen by others, including some people I respect. It’s hard to say whether Eddie Murphy’s or Nick Nolte’s shtick has worn smoother with time. But somehow, when they’re together, it works. I mean, if ever two characters deserved each other….And the opening sequence still makes me think something really great is about happen, no matter how many times I’ve been let down before.

June 24-Forever Mine (1999, d. Paul Schrader, First Viewing)

Because a reprint of Greil Marcus’s original review just appeared on his website and made me wonder if I might have missed something, either in the film itself or Gretchen Mol’s performance as a corrupt politician/businessman’s moll (Ray Liotta with what looks like a bad hair-piece but every time I say that it just turns out be bad hair). Turns out I hadn’t. Mol’s performance bears no resemblance to the still above. If it had, that would be a whole different story. I should have known. Has anyone ever huffed and puffed and promised more while delivering less than Paul Schrader? And, yes, I’m including Taxi Driver.

June 25-Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, d. Steven Spielberg, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s one of my favorite action movies and a long way the best of the Raiders series. Because it pays homage to Busby Berkeley, Buster Keaton, Chuck Jones, Saturday morning serials, Mr. Moto, Disney action and so much else that makes life worth living, without, for once, kowtowing to any of them. Because Kate Capshaw makes me laugh. (“A-a-and I cracked a nail!”). And because it’s one of about ten movies ever made that can live up to this picture, of which existence I was happily unaware until I started collecting images for this post. How it took Capshaw a whole seven years to become Mrs. Speilberg I will ever wonder and never know. But I ain’t surprised it took.

THE CIVIL WAR ON FILM…A HANDY TEN

What with all the chatter about a coming second Civil War and all those statues coming down, I thought it might be useful to provide a list of good movies about the first Civil War. There haven’t been all that many, considering the significance of the occasion (I settled on ten, though even ten is way more good ones than we have about the Revolution, which some people regard as being an event in its own right).

As often happens, the losers had the stories. Four of these are from a Southern perspective. Three are either balanced or apolitical. The other three are about Lincoln.

My experience with Birth of a Nation is too long ago, and left too limited an impression (VHS on a 25″ television was perhaps not the best way to experience it) for me to have much of an opinion about it. From what I do remember it wouldn’t have made the cut anyway.

The General (1926)
D. Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman

And we begin here, with the Silent Era’s real Civil War masterpiece. It’s such a great and lauded comedy (it competes with Some Like it Hot for the highest ranking comedy on all those Best Of lists compiled by the crit-illuminati, and that it’s even a competition would be proof God doesn’t exist if it weren’t greater proof that the Devil does), that it’s easy to forget it’s also an action masterpiece, a Great Romance, a better train movie than Hitchcock ever made, and, as such things go, pretty sound history (the event depicted was real and, underneath all the zaniness, the story doesn’t stray much from the facts). You can have extra fun running around the internet looking up all the breathless reviews and trying to catch anyone emphasizing that the movie is as pro-Confederate as Gone With the Wind, or, if memory serves, Birth of a Nation. Buster makes us laugh. He’s protected. For now.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
D. John Ford

The variety of approaches John Ford took to the Civil War–without ever quite making a straightforward Civil War Movie (even The Horse Soldiers, comes in at an odd angle)–would make for an interesting book. Ford was one of two major American film-makers whose movies had politics (see below for the other) and those politics were cranky, unpredictable, leaning toward the pragmatic but with a touch of poetry thrown in at key moments to tip the moral balance.

He was made for Abraham Lincoln, then, and Lincoln for him. Ford famously “shamed” a reluctant Henry Fonda into playing the lead. Fonda was overwhelmed by the idea. Forget the Great Emancipator, Ford said. He’s a jack-leg lawyer from Springfield.

And that’s what Fonda does. He forgets himself right into the jack-leg lawyer’s skin.

But Ford never lets you forget this jack-leg lawyer’s eye for the main chance. Every move he makes–whether defending innocents from a lynch-mob, judging a pie contest, or, in the movie’s most telling scene, moving, with seeming reluctance, from the easy company of the backwoods farmers who know he’s a card, to the lap of Springfield Society, where only a certain Mary Todd laughs at his jokes–is rooted in ambition. Any idealism would be–must be–forever tempered. The visage of the stone monument that emerged from the rain in the film’s final frames as World War II loomed counts the cost.

Gone With The Wind (1939)
D. Victor Fleming (among others)

The Great White Whale.

Or is it Elephant? I get confused.

Anyway, it’s not the History that bothers the termite-lauding gate-keepers. As a matter of abiding by facts (which is what the illuminati always mean by History, except when the facts are inconvenient), Gone With the Wind is better than almost any of the historical fictions that never seem to bother anybody.

It’s the perspective that grates.

You know….But it’s racist!

No kidding. It’s told from the point of view of a daughter of the Plantation South–a class not generally known for their enlightened views on the subject–and engaged entirely with what she sees, feels, deems important. And if you think she and hers have got a sense of privilege when it comes to black people, you should take a look at how they–and Mammy–feel about “white trash” hillbillies some time.

It’s dangerous to forget what people have believed or why they believed it. I’m sure I read somewhere or other that it’s the forgetting that will let them learn to believe again.

Unless, of course, we really have transcended mere human nature.

Watch it now, while it’s still legal.

The Tall Target (1951)
D. Anthony Mann

Mann watched John Ford’s movies even more obsessively than Orson Welles or David Lean. He studied them so hard, his movies ended up having politics, too, never more than here.

The story involves Dick Powell’s detective, John Kennedy–who has isolated himself by resigning his post–trying to stop the Baltimore Plot assassination attempt on Lincoln as he journeys to Washington D.C. by train for his inauguration.  It’s a fine thriller, a great train movie and an excellent historical drama, not to mention one of the great unsung films noir.

But it’s also sharp about the complexities involved in secession and slavery as seen by the people of 1861. There are fine performances all around–Powell was really good at this sort of thing and the unflappable Adolphe Menjou has one of his very best roles.

But don’t sleep on Ruby Dee’s “servant,” as loyal as Mammy or Pork, and under no illusions about where her real interests lie. The subject of freedom does come up, after all. And her I know what it is (in response to her mistress suggesting she couldn’t possibly) says more than any hundred books about why the seductive appeal that slavery held for the slavers could only be eradicated by the massive bloodshed that, by 1861, was inevitable whether the Baltimore Plot succeeded or not.

Worth remembering–and revisiting–as the Alt-Right seizes the Post-Millennial Narrative.

The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
D. John Huston

I wrote extensively about this one here. I would only add that its mutilation is not entirely without relevance to the question of why Empires fall. And that what is left is still essential viewing for anyone who hopes to learn from the mistakes we were beginning to make even as this still essential film was being chopped to pieces by its studio.

Escape From Fort Bravo (1953)
D. John Sturges

“How’d a decrepit old man like you ever get in the war?”
“Because all the smart young men like you was losing it.”

A rare western actually set in both the West and the Civil War. Its most stirring scenes involve Indian fighting. But it’s a first rate Civil War film, too, presaging the kind of cooperation between bitter enemies that was required to hold the West during the conflict, and conquer what remained of it afterwards.

Anyone who thinks that was easy or inevitable will be disabused of the notion by this one. The final clash with the Mescalero Apaches is among the most heart-stopping action sequences in cinema, nonpareil even for the man who made The Great Escape.

Meanwhile, William Holden and Eleanor Parker are at their considerable best–he never more bitter or world-weary (not even in The Wild Bunch, the movie Sam Peckinpah made after Major Dundee, which shares its main themes with Bravo, turned out less than half as good), she never more noble or fetching.

But the heart of the film belongs to William Demarest’s aging Confederate. He’s there for a reason.

You know because all the smart young men like you was losing it.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
D. Clint Eastwood

Of the Eastwood-directed films I’ve seen (eleven by my count, most of them entertaining), this is the only one with a touch of poetry. One wonders if the early involvement of Phil Kaufman–who’s known for such touches–had something to do with that. But, as it’s brutal poetry, it might have been Forrest Carter’s source material. Carter wrote two novels about the Josey Wales character, a renegade who, motivated by vengeance after his family is murdered by Kansas Redlegs, rides with Bill Anderson in the Civil War and refuses to surrender afterwards. Before that, as Asa Carter, he had been a speechwriter for George Wallace, credited with, among other things, Wallace’s “segregation forever” speech. Brutal poetry was his specialty.

Any chance Josey Wales would be rated as highly as it deserves (Orson Welles thought it a masterwork and, with Eastwood shedding most of the Sergio Leone influence and accessing his inner John Ford, I’m in no position to argue), was shot to hell once that got around. Perhaps Kaufman’s status as a sterling liberal would have helped ease the illuminati‘s collective conscience. There was no way for that to happen with Eastwood’s name under the directing credit.

Be that as it may, it’s an essential film. certainly the best made about a border raider. Unlike the Jesse James’ narratives it shadows, it doesn’t need a distortion of history to make the fictional Wales a protagonist who, if not exactly easy to root for, is still worth feeling for. The character suits Eastwood’s laconic style to a T (it might be his best acting job), and there’s good work all around, especially from Chief Dan George, who, in a just world, would have picked up the Oscar he already deserved for Little Big Man.

With time and patience I’ve even forgiven Sondra Locke for not being Shirley MacLaine (Eastwood’s partner in Two Mules for Sister Sara, who would have been perfect for this if she’d been ten years younger).

And, lo and behold, gleaming through at the end, is that old shibboleth, The American Dream.

The one where all men are brothers, forgiven their sins and living in harmony–a strange vision indeed, emanating from the Segregation Forever man and, perhaps for the last time, granted the power of myth.

Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1988)
D. Lamont Johnson

Television and, to my mind, a superior take to Steven Spielberg’s (still quite good) made-for-theaters Lincoln.

Gore Vidal’s source novel had enough authority to excise the inevitable sentimentality that’s built into Lincoln’s basic arc (so primal that little myth-making gild has ever been required) from any adaptation. And Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore, the best Abe and Mary since Young Mister Lincoln, look, act, move and speak as though they’ve absorbed everything John Ford implied forty years earlier–or that the real Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd left behind of themselves just shy of four score years before that. There is no better way–on film, television, stage or page–to experience the weight of Lincoln’s burden or the lasting tragedy of his being taken from the scene so soon after the guns grew silent.

Gettysburg (1993)
D. Ron Maxwell

The best battle film ever made. There are sequences in other films that match the combat scenes here, but no entire film that mounts with the same tension from peak to peak.

The battle itself was made for a three act drama, though no one seems to have realized it until Michael Shaara published The Killer Angels in 1974. It’s all captured here. Sam Elliot’s John Buford turning a skirmish into a battle on the First Day that established the respective positions of the armies (and the Union’s tactical advantage). Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain desperately clinging to Little Round Top and preventing the turn of the Union flank (in scenes of brutal close order fighting that have not been surpassed) on the Second Day. Stephen Lang’s George Pickett leading the fatal charge against the Union center on the Third Day.

Maxwell spent years trying to bring it all to the screen and the commitment shows. The weight of the matter is left in no doubt. The men on either side understood the battle’s–and the war’s–significance, to them and the nation. An impressive array of fine actors do their best work bringing them to life–not just Elliot, Daniels and Lang, but Tom Berenger (James Longstreet), Richard Jordan (Lewis Armisted), Brian Mallon (Winfield Hancock), C. Thomas Howell (Tom Chamberlain) and Kevin Conway (as a fictional Union Everyman)  are all indelible. Even the small parts are exquisitely cast and played–for me the strongest impression is made by Andrew Prine’s Dick Garnett, on screen for perhaps five minutes, and doing more than any man here to demonstrate the fatalistic sickness that descends on men who have seen too much slaughter.

And beyond all that is the movie’s most disorienting feature–Martin Sheen taking Robert E. Lee down from his pedestal and putting a human being in his place with a penetrating psychological portrait that does not shirk the idea that Lee was undone by the cult of personality his virtually unbroken string of successes before the Third Day at Gettysburg was bound to engender.

Ride With the Devil (1999)
D. Ang Lee

A box office disaster with the kind of mixed reviews that always result when a movie doesn’t come with the underlining in crayon that tells critics what they are supposed to think.

Don’t let that put you off. It’s a great sequel to The Outlaw Josey Wales, but it’s also it’s own thing–something that cannot be said of many films made post 1980, in the Frozen Silence of modern American “culture.”

Tobey Maguire reminds you of why he was such a big deal for a while there and Jewel caps a lovely performance by being the only white person in the history of film to keep the word “nigger” free of modern associations.

It’s the absence of all modern associations, especially those tied to moral or physical comfort, that make the film difficult to fit into any approved Narrative.

We’re back to the border wars again–the one part of the country where the War raged on for years after Appomattox, not as a test of political will, but as a killing field fought over by “irregulars.”

A German immigrant and a black man ride with the Southerners (this made many heads spin on C-Span), who are losing their identity anyway. The Southerners fight each other verbally as much as they fight the Enemy physically.

No one is ever right. Or safe.

You can see how the thirty-eight million dollar budget turned into six hundred thousand at the box office.

But the lessons for the future are there, if you choose to look and learn.

The main difference is that, next time, it will be down your street, and the bickering will be between men with Uzis and AKs, instead of six-shooters.

Else rocket launchers.

Watch ’em while you can ya’ll!

 

 

SUBJECT TO UPDATING…ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS ON THE SIGHT AND SOUND POLL

I don’t want anybody to get the wrong idea. I enjoy these lists. I just find the narrowness of their scope kind of simultaneously amusing and frustrating. I mean, do they have to always end up being more about the herd-like mentality of professional critics than about the medium itself?

One reason I think these lists (and it happens the same way with books and records) arrive virtually devoid of idiosyncracies is that the process itself is narrow. If I understand it correctly, everybody submits a list of ten, from which of final list of fifty or a hundred is compiled. So I propose a new method:

Instead of listing a “top ten” have each critic send a list of “films I couldn’t possibly in good conscience leave out of my top ten if I knew I didn’t have to impress anyone else.” Some people might list four or five films, some people might list two hundred.

This way, instead of a completely arbitrary number, what you would be getting is a list of films that critics care most deeply about–and I bet at least a few more surprises would percolate to the top. If not to the top ten, then at least the top fifty.

So, strictly for fun:

1920s:

The Passion of Joan of Arc
The General (any Keaton really….But the paucity of entries here tells me I am way-y-y-y behind in my silent film watching)

1930s:

Gone With the Wind (Yes, it’s all that. Deal with it.)
Drums Along the Mohawk
The Bank Dick
Pygmalion (No way I’m leaving Wendy Hiller off this list)
Stage Door
Top Hat
Carefree (Ginger doing “The Yam” and shooting skeet. Fred hanging in. That is what I call art.)
Young Mr. Lincoln
The Rules of the Game

1940s:

The Maltese Falcon
Citizen Kane
The Curse of the Cat People
Double Indemnity
That Hamilton Woman
The Lady Eve
Shadow of a Doubt
Notorious
They Were Expendable
His Girl Friday
The Asphalt Jungle
The Pirate (You keep Debbie Reynolds. I’ll keep Judy Garland)
White Heat
Out of the Past
The Fallen Idol
Fort Apache

The 1950s:

Clash By Night
Orpheus
Beat the Devil
The Big Heat
Roman Holiday
High Noon
A Streetcar Named Desire
In A Lonely Place
The Searchers
Kind Hearts and Coronets
3:10 to Yuma
A Star is Born
The Sweet Smell of Success
Gigi (You keep Debbie Reynolds. I’ll keep Leslie Caron)
Tiger Bay (No way I’m leaving Hayley Mills off this list, though if I really had any guts I’d include The Truth About Spring)
The Naked Spur
Some Came Running
Paths of Glory

The 1960s:

L’Avventura
The Best Man
The Misfits
Cape Fear (The Night of the Hunter was pure abstraction. Max Cady? Him I recognize. And him I fear.)
Swiss Family Robinson (The only film I know for certain Lucas and Spielberg have seen all the way through. Too bad their numberless acolytes have not.)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Miracle Worker
Charade
Dr. Strangelove (Can’t believe Kubrick made my list twice)
The Americanization of Emily
The Apartment
The Graduate
Medium Cool
Gambit (You can never have too much Shirley MacLaine)
The T.A.M.I. Show (Just FYI: If you held me to two, it would be this and The Searchers)

The 1970s:

The Conversation
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
The Bad News Bears (Can’t leave out my autobiography. The Rebel Without a Cause of the seventies, except way funnier. And way sadder.)
I Wanna Hold Your Hand

The 1980s:

The Long Good Friday
Blow Out

(NOTE: I’m not actually opposed to the idea of more recent films being as great as films of the more distant past. I just don’t feel qualified to judge past a certain point because, frankly, I don’t get out much.)