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

Feb. 7-The Bank Job (2008, d. Roger Donaldson, First Viewing)

Saw it in a bargain bin and decided, on the strength of Roger Donaldson’s name (and fond memories of Smash Palace and No Way Out), to take a chance. Good pick, bordering on a “wow.” It’ll take a few visits to decide whether this is great or near-great, but at first contact, it even made me like Jason Statham (whose presence tempted me to give it a pass) and more than a little. Based on the biggest bank heist in the history of the UK, and plausible down to the last detail even if parts had to be made up, as the movie itself says “to protect the guilty.” If England really is going away forever, whoever comes next can show this for proof of why it deserved its fate.

Feb. 8-Ace in the Hole (1951, d. Billy Wilder, Second Viewing)

Because it was showing at the college theater, free for students and alumni! They showed it on a medium-sized screen in the small room, but it was enough of a difference from my single DVD-viewing to raise it a notch to near-greatness. I imagine it would go all the way in a big hall. For those who don’t know, it’s Billy Wilder’s poison pill valentine to yellow journalism and boy is it contemporary. Kirk Douglas is the only big name in the cast. Everybody else, even the few familiar character actors, look as though they were hired on location for sub-union wages. Since Douglas  (never better) is playing a big-shot reporter who’s been thrown off of every decent paper in the east, slumming in some podunk town in the driest, hottest American Southwest ever filmed while plotting his way back to the big time, the contrast works beautifully. The crackling Wilder dialog never sounded better than here, coming out of the mouths of ordinary Americans grinding along, finally getting what they want in the way of excitement and getting it good and hard.

Feb. 11-The Departed (2006, d. Martin Scorcese, First Viewing)

Because I hadn’t seen it before. Because I’m always willing to give Marty Scorcese another try just in case he might one day make me root for one of his characters to do something other than die so yet another of his soulless, well-crafted movies can be over already. Because there was another bargain bin and I was really bored (and really miffed I still can’t afford a decent CD player because the bottom line is now fifty dollars more than the last time I couldn’t afford it) and this was really cheap.

Bottom line? I didn’t want the Leo DeCaprio character to die. Three guesses how that worked out.

Feb. 13-Life of Crime (2013, d.  Daniel Schechter, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because, in these few short years, it’s become one of my go-to movies of this or any decade. Even though they sort of work the same side of the street, and it’s not my side, I have a higher tolerance for Elmore Leonard than Martin Scorcese. A lot of good movies have been made from his stuff, going all the way back to the 50s and I seldom want his people to die, which, among other things, makes it a relief when they don’t. I’ll always watch this one for the look on Jennifer Aniston’s face when she’s getting high to the sound of “Let Your Love Flow,” and for trying to decide whether she, Mos Def (Yasiin Bey), or John Hawkes has the best voice going, not just here but anywhere, and who looks and sounds the most like they stepped straight out of the 70s.

Feb. 15-Against the Ropes (2004, d. Charles S. Dutton, First Viewing)

If you notice an unusual lot of first-time viewings here, well, that’s what happens when I get cheap and bored. I picked this one up because I vaguely remembered Meg Ryan getting some of her last good reviews for it. She earned them. The rest of the movie is boilerplate (albeit reasonably well-executed), But Ryan’s performance as pioneering boxing promoter/manager Jackie Kallen, who was the first woman to do pretty much everything in the field, and the first to do a few things period, is all that. How much you like this movie will depend on how much you like Jackie Kallen. I liked her quite a bit. Better than I expected to because Ryan didn’t make her lovable. I don’t think it’s a go-to. There’s plenty of Meg Ryan elsewhere for that. But I’m glad I saw it once.

Feb. 16-Gambit (1966, d. Ronald Neame, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well because it’s for always and my favorite comic heist flick. But especially for the way Shirley MacLaine’s Nicole Chang gets smarter whenever Michael Caine’s Harry Dean gets dumber and vice versa. They make it a miracle of ease (and comedy, and romance). Hollywood spent years trying to remake it and finally succeeded with Cameron Diaz and somebody or other. Why no one knows. I haven’t seen it. It was probably part of a drug deal. Certainly, it was some sort of criminal enterprise, like every attempt to improve perfection. To pull that off you’d need these actors…and a time machine.

Feb. 18-The Terminator (1984, d. James Cameron, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because, as I’ve said before, it’s the greatest pulp movie ever. James Cameron has spent the rest of his life trying to live up to it without even coming close, maybe because he never got another performance out of an actor to match what Linda Hamilton did here, growing from a scared rabbit to the “mother of the future” without a false move. Naturally, she was rewarded with a TV show. Her next best part on film was as the action hero in Terminator 2 and it was the best by miles any woman has done with such a role. But it was barely one-dimensional compared to this. That and the nine hundred deservedly iconic visuals that keep popping off the screen (not to mention the only successful triple-climax in the history of action movies), will always make it bottomless.

Feb. 19-Angel and the Badman (1948, d. James Earl Grant,  Umpteenth Viewing)

Because John Wayne and Gail Russell and because it was time. It’s always time.

Feb. 21-French Kiss (199, d. Lawrence Kasdan, Fifth Viewing)

Like I said. there’s plenty of go-to Meg Ryan, none better than this, probably the breeziest part she ever had. It actually helps that the iconography of When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle are missing. You can watch it without wondering whether you’ll need to memorize pull quotes for the dissertation. And, at least five times around, Kevin Kline playing a randy French jewel thief is more fun than Billy Crystal playing an uber-mensch or Tom Hanks playing an uber-WASP. He might even catch you by surprise once in a while.

Feb. 23-The Conversation (1974, d. Francis Ford Coppola, Fourth Viewing)

For the best movie of the 1970s…and the best movie about the 1970s (I’m not sure any movie has ever been both for any other decade). It makes sense in a way. If by chance anybody caught the peculiar mood of the 70s on film, it was bound to become definitive as time went on. This one always places high on “best of” critical lists….but never too high. That will come in the future when we don’t have to deal with what all we didn’t do to avoid living where we do now.

Til next time…

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (September, 2018)

Sept. 16-The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola, Fifth Viewing)

Because it had been a while and, recognizing it’s a cinematic masterpiece, I still want to keep trying. The glamorization of sociopaths is not something I take lightly, and whether that was anyone’s intention or not, that’s been the movie’s chief legacy. Why I’ll always come back to it at least once in a while: To remind myself that Al Pacino, in his breakout role, was a model of restraint and nuance. There’s no way to imagine anyone else in the part while you’re watching it–and no way to reconcile what he was with what he has become. And for Brando’s reckless and glorious decision to play the Godfather as a series of fluid masks, part clown, part Borgia, which never let you in on whether he thinks this role is a Serious Acting Job, a Gently Mocking Comic Performance, or a Complete Crock.

Or maybe all three.

Sept. 16-The Godfather Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola, Fifth Viewing)

Well, I already watched the other one. And my internet was out. Pacino’s still great. Brando is sorely missed (as is James Caan). DeNiro is good enough, no better. It still gets by, and pretty easily. It’s extremely well made. It doesn’t help that its vision of American corruption–doubling down on the first movie and evidently illuminating in its own time (a lot of people thought it was better than the first)–has long since been rendered naive by real world events.

Sept. 17-Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937, Norman Foster, Third Viewing)

For Peter Lorre, and the charms of Old Hollywood. What else is there? What else does there need to be? Not much, thankfully.

Sept. 19-Office Space (1999, Mike Judge, Fifth Viewing)

For the production values….Just kidding. Really because we’ve all been there. I’ve worked for the same company since 1986 and, except for my first year and one or two years in the early nineties, I’ve basically worked unsupervised. The last ten years I’ve worked at home. Except for the pay, I’ve had a pretty good gig. Still, I relate to some part of this. Everybody relates to some part of this. Office life and the rending and tearing of the American Dream. Jennifer “This is Me, Expressing Myself,” Aniston expressing herself, comic genius from Gary Cole, Diedrich Bader and Stephen Root (pictured above), and I like how no one really escapes into anything except the next round of being themselves.

Sept. 20-That Darn Cat! (1965, Robert Stevenson, Umpteenth Viewing)

 For Ms. Mills, of course, and because it’s an indestructible fantasy–an America where cats and plucky tomboys solve kidnappings and, if they do have to call on the FBI, it’s represented by Dean Jones, not J. Edgar Hoover or the clownfish who run the place now. And laugh about those silly Disney comedies all you want, but try putting a cast together to equal not just those two, but  Dorothy Provine, Wiliam Demarest, Elsa Lancaster, Ed Wynn, Neville Brand and Frank Gorshin these days. When you do, just be sure to keep them. I’ll take this.

Sept. 20-The Truth About Spring (1965, Richard Thorpe, Umpteenth Viewing)

Sue me, I was still in a Hayley mood (not to mention a Hayley-in-blue-jeans-and-a-sailor-cap mood, which is sort of its own thing). Plus, I like to fume at James MacArthur once in a while by reminding myself he’s the only male of the entire species who ever walked out of a last frame with her and Janet Munro. Who doesn’t want to sit around the house on a rainy day muttering Lucky bastard. I’m glad you’re dead!?

Plus it’s one of maybe twenty movies that still make me laugh out loud. I’ve never pretended to know why.

Sept. 20-The Bad News Bears (1976, Michael Ritchie, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s the best movie that is ever going to be made about the seventies and the closest I’ll ever see to an autobiography on film. I wasn’t any one player–but I was more than a little piece of some of them (including the Timmy Lupus we all suspect we are when we’re ten and the Kelly Leak we all want to be when we’re twelve)–and I knew the rest. I like that Michael Ritchie and Walter Matthau (in his finest performance) didn’t miss what was happening to the culture at the neighborhood level–and what was being done to those of us who were too young to know–without it really being anyone’s fault because it was everyone’s fault.

And, for all that, there’s still no movie any funnier.

Sept. 21-The Terminator (1984, James Cameron, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s the greatest pulp movie ever made and I’m always glad when I haven’t seen it in a while (like, I don’t know, six months) and can feel like I’m about to get run over by a truck again.

The entire American movie industry–not to mention James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger–have spent the last three-and-a-half decades trying (and failing) to catch up. Absent any meaningful national narrative (like those that fueled everything from westerns to war movies to biblical epics to melodramas in previous decades), pulp is all we have. Since there’s little we can do about that, it’s lucky for us we at least have a truly apocalyptic vision of ourselves, just as it was all blowing apart. If you watch it often enough, you might start to notice how impossible Linda Hamilton’s transformation from the girl next door to scared rabbit to super-heroine actually is–and how natural she makes it look. Whether you notice or not, it once inspired David Thomson to call her character “a very tough young hoodlum” when what he meant was, she’s a waitress.

As Sarah Connor might say, it never hurts to be reminded what the crit-illuminati really think of you.

Sept. 23-Destry Rides Again (1939, George Marshall, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the second best western of the nineteen-thirties (after Stagecoach). I usually don’t exactly get Marlene Dietrich, but she’s fabulous here. I almost always get James Stewart and he’s fabulous, too. I also like to be reminded that the second greatest western of the thirties was a spoof and that it was greater than even the greatest spoofs that came later because it was also a really fine straight western. That said, there’s no scene I wait for more eagerly than the catfight between Dietrich and Una Merkel, which puts all other screen catfights to shame. (The only weakness is a stolid romantic subplot–but even John Ford sometimes had trouble with those.)

Sept. 23-Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because I like it’s odd rhythm, which is neither modern nor old-fashioned but, rather like the Duke Ellington score that pulses underneath, its own thing. Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara play a couple who hadn’t been seen in American film before and really haven’t been seen again. It’s not that people haven’t tried, it’s just that, as a pair, they represent something that can only have real juice the first time it happens–and I don’t even know whether I mean the characters or the performances, or that it matters.

Like Bonnie and Clyde, they’re going to run down the road until somebody stops them. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, they’re never going to be easy targets or sitting ducks. You can’t predict what will happen to them, no matter how many times you watch. All the other fine performances (James Stewart, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, George C. Scott–none of them ever better) are just there for a framework, along with Preminger’s stellar direction and a dead-on script pruned from Robert Traver’s (a nom-de-plume for real life attorney John D. Voelker), overlong bestseller.

Everybody else is stuck in the fifties.

Lee and Ben are ready for the sixties.

Ready in a way the squares who sit around in their little towns preserving civilization–setting up law practices, defending murderers–never can be.

….Til next time.

FORD AND HAWKS, HAWKS AND FORD…AT WAR (And Then There Was Hollywood: Eighth Rumination)

Air Force (1943)
D. Howard Hawks

and…

They Were Expendable (1945)
D. John Ford

Ford and Hawks. Hawks and Ford.

No two directors have ever been paired so frequently. Hence, they’re stuck with each other–not that either man would mind.

They might be bemused, though, given all that separated them.

As for what united them, at least in the critical narrative….

Part of it was timing. They were close in age (Ford was born in 1894, Hawks in 1896), and subsequently comparable in experience and stature, not to mention close friends, especially later in life.

Part of it was taste. They both used John Wayne a lot (Ford could rightly take credit for making Wayne a star, Hawks for his maturation, Ford again for making the most of that maturation). They both liked stories about men in groups (though Hawks generally preferred ad hoc associations, Ford more formal and permanent ones).

Part of it was longevity. Once you sort out the wunderkinds (Welles, Ray, Coppola), they stand apart as the great American (and most American) filmmakers of the Golden Age or any other.

But mostly it’s the old yin and yang.

Give them the same subject matter, and they’d find approaches that both complemented and repelled each other–like two planets orbiting in opposite directions around the same sun.

That essential paradox was never more clearly displayed than in their approaches to their respective (somewhat obligatory) films about fighting men in WWII.

By obligatory, I don’t mean they took them less than seriously–these are two of the best war films ever made and likely the very best about men in small combat units. But it’s likely each man (both notoriously hard to read and completely unreliable as authors of their own narratives) approached his project more compelled by duty than enthusiasm. “A job of work” as Ford was fond of saying.

The dates on the films are a bit deceptive. Hawks filmed in the summer of 1942 and Air Force was released in February, 1943. Ford filmed in the summer of 1945 and They Were Expendable was released in December, 1945. The three years that separated the respective film-shoots were a lifetime.

In 1942, the outcome of the early war in the Pacific (the setting for both films) was still very much in doubt. It no longer seemed likely the Japanese would be overrunning the Pacific coast. But that they would hold onto, perhaps expand, their empire, seemed as likely as not.

In the tense, skittish atmosphere of ’42, Hawks, the man who loved flying and the sky, made a film about the crew of a single plane responding to Pearl Harbor and the impending loss of the Philippines by island hopping until they are able to lead a squadron that takes out an entire Japanese fleet and basically win the war by Christmas.

In the triumphant atmosphere of ’45, Ford, the man who loved sailing and the sea, made a film about a PT boat squadron being driven relentlessly toward defeat.

Air Force is notable among Hawks’ films in that death has a real presence and even a sting–a deep one on-screen and a deeper one off. In that sense, it’s the most Fordian film made by a director who, when asked by Peter Bogdonavich if he thought about Ford when he made westerns, said: “Well, it’s hard not to think about Jack Ford when you’re making a western…or any film really.”

Still, the tell-tale differences are there: there’s a “lucky” animal in both pictures, each played for laughs–a feisty little dog in Air Force gets some big scenes and plenty of attention, even an arc; a black cat in Expendable has no arc but simply skitters from boat to boat, reinforcing the random nature of “luck” in war time.

The men in both pictures go to extraordinary lengths to protect and preserve their “ships”–ships that are, in each case, considered of little use by high command until their crews prove them otherwise in the heat of conflict. Hawks’ plane–the Mary-Ann, rides out the film in glory. Ford’s boats–known by their numbers–go down in flames, one by one, until the last one is hauled off to run messages for the battered rump Army unit that remains on Corregidor. The men of Hawks’ Mary-Ann gather in the last scene, all smiles, on their way to bomb Tokyo. The men of Ford’s PT boats are scattered to the winds: some dead or lost at sea; others reassigned to the army, where (like the nurses exemplified by Donna Reed’s WAC) they’ll be killed or taken prisoner in the oncoming attack; a tiny few evacuated (in one of Ford’s most effective and moving final scenes, which is saying something) to be reassigned to teach the men who will “come back.”

Speaking of women–there’s no room for Hawks’ ideal One-of-the-Boys Dames in Air Force, so they don’t function as anything but someone for the heroes to say goodbye to (albeit they don’t yet know they’ll be heroes because they leave San Francisco on Dec. 6, 1941). The closest thing to a significant female character is a young woman, seriously injured in the Pearl attack, who is the sister of the Mary-Ann‘s co-pilot and the fiancee of its bombardier. She has a bedside scene that’s actually echoed in Expendable, only there, the patient is a wounded soldier pretending he doesn’t know he’s going to be left to die when his crew comes for a last visit.

In Ford, death always stings, never more so than here, where it is a constant presence, weighing more and more heavily as the film progresses–every visit registering in their commander’s face (Robert Montgomery, in a performance that transcends any notion of awarding it, though I doubt that’s why it was ignored).

Expendable, on the other hand, does have one significant female part–Reed’s Sandy Davyys. It’s a small but telling (and career-making) part. She’s no dame, but any man with sense would marry her a hundred times over any other man’s glorious fantasy. (Evidently a lot of men who actually fought in WWII felt the same. After Reed’s death, her daughter spoke of her mother receiving hundreds of letters from servicemen, which she mentioned to no one, and kept to the end of her life, a life that included fierce and public opposition to the American war in Viet Nam.)

Which leads us to the issue of verisimilitude.

To be fair to Hawks, Air Force comes from an era when war films were all but required to be infused with propaganda. Ford, directing at the end of the war, and having seen much of that war up close and personal–including Midway, where, in the initial fighting, men every bit as devoted to their planes as the crew of Air Force, were destroyed en masse by more technologically advanced Japanese fighters*–had a freer hand, not to mention a set of experiences that jaundiced a world view already prone to melancholy. In addition, Ford had the advantage of working with a number of cast and crew who, like him, had seen action. It’s possible that They Were Expendable is as close as any group of men have ever come to portraying war as they had just witnessed it so close to the fact.

And, oddly, it’s Expendable‘s downbeat tone–reflected in a title that, perhaps unconsciously, doubles as homage to its heroes and a dire prediction of the subsequent costs of empire which are with us still–that lends gravity to Hawks’ irrepressible can-do optimism. It’s a spirit that’s fundamental to all of Hawks’ best work, just as the spirit of elegy and remembrance is fundamental to Ford’s, but here is gains by the presence of a counterweight, brought to his own film by Ford’s original great silent-era collaborator, Harry Carey, Sr. and the hindsight we can enjoy from a distance where both films are secure in their reputations, as necessary to their own times as they are unfathomable to these.

I didn’t have a chance to see either film until after I was forty. The distance between them–the way they both reinforce and parry each other, until Expendable finally rises above–was more evident then because I’d undergone my own transformation. At twenty-nine I was a Hawks man all the way–the same way I preferred the Beatles to the Stones, Audrey Hepburn to Vivien Leigh, Raymond Chandler to Ross MacDonald.

Time reversed all those judgments.

Not because I lost any affection for the former–not even one degree.

Just because older, for me as for most people, has meant sadder and wiser.

Defeat may not be permanent. But it’s the greater part of life’s arc. As someone said at the end of another great war film: All glory is fleeting.**

For nations, as well as men.

Hawks may have suspected.

Ford knew.

*Ford, having taken film of the men with their planes the day before, later arranged the films to be sent to each man’s family at his own expense.

**Patton, for those wondering. Pretty safe bet that Francis Ford Coppola, who wrote the screenplay, knew his Ford as well as Patton knew his Latin.

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

Again, the links are to those I’ve written something substantive about…

1970 Two Mules for Sister Sara (Don Siegel) (over Patton and Kelly’s Heroes)

1971 Dollars (Richard Brooks) (over Billy Jack, Klute, A New Leaf and The Last Picture Show)

1972 The Harder They Come (Perry Hanzell) (over Bad Company, The Candidate, Sounder and What’s Up Doc?)

1973 Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich) (very close run over American Graffiti)

1974 The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola…his best, and most prescient, movie by a long measure) (over Chinatown)

1975 Night Moves (Arthur Penn) (over Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest and Shampoo)

1976 The Bad News Bears (Michael Ritchie) (Good year. Nothing close)

1977 Heroes (Jeremy Kagan) (Lean year. And, despite TV-Movie-of-the-Week production levels, nothing close…Please don’t watch any version that doesn’t include “Carry On, Wayward Son” over the closing credits.)

1978 I Wanna Hold Your Hand (Robert Zemeckis) (over American Hot Wax and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith)

1979 The In-Laws (Arthur Hiller) (over Norma Rae)

I’ll try to keep ’em rolling tomorrow. The picking’s are about to get…a bit slimmer.

TEN FILMS YOU MIGHT WANT TO WATCH (OR REWATCH) BETWEEN NOW AND NOVEMBER…

(Well, I said I might be in a list-making mood. So, as the long, hot summer hits its stride, I introduce a new category I created because I couldn’t fit this post into any of my existing ones. Having stretched my brain to its limits, I’m calling it….Lists.)

High Noon (1952)
Director: Fred Zinneman

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A supposed Cold War metaphor that could be claimed by either side, according to virtue-seeking whim. But it’s deeper than that, almost pre-civilizational, and the thematic structure is as spare and unforgiving as the famous “real time”  trick of the plot.

“You’re a judge,” Gary Cooper’s Will Kane says to the first person who decides to run instead of fight, when it becomes known that a vengeful outlaw’s gang is now waiting for him at the station on the edge of town, where he’ll arrive on the noon train.

“I’ve been a judge many times in many towns,” is the sensible, world-weary reply. “I hope to live to be a judge again.”

Last I looked, his shades are splitting time between the Supreme Court and the Council of Ministers. They’re all wearing different names and faces, of course, while every Leader of the Free World pretends this is his favorite movie.

A good, swift reminder that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for enough good men to choose survival over honor…or let things come to such a pass that the only choices are laying down and dying or throwing up in your mouth.

The Last Hurrah (1958)
Director: John Ford

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High-middling by Ford’s standards, which means it still goes places worth going. Perhaps the first film to suggest that our politics had got beyond satirizing, a suggestion we’ve spent the years since proving beyond a shadow of a doubt. I thought it was a touch over the top the first time I saw it. Then, upon revisiting, I realized how much Frank Skeffington’s opponents reminded me of the Bush family, who had, in fact, emerged from this very Bostonian milieu.

Seen in one light, the film can be comforting: It’s all been round before.

Seen in another, it can send an entirely different message: We’re doomed.

Either way, the final scene is Spencer Tracy’s finest hour.

That Hamilton Woman (1941)
Director: Alexander Korda

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What? You mean England and “Europe” weren’t always chums? You mean England and America weren’t always chums? What gives?

This film, about England at high tide (and yes, about Horatio Nelson and his famous mistress, too), is a good reminder of how hard it is to have chums–or challenge social convention–when you’re intent on ruling an empire where, as some quipster once had it, “the sun never sets and the blood never dries.” That’s something Americans have been forced to learn a thing or two about in the world we’ve made since.

From Gone With the Wind onward, Vivien Leigh was always some measure of great, and never greater than here, which may be the role she was born to play. The final scene is all hers and a killer. But it’s not more poignant than the moment, mid-film, when Leigh’s Emma Hamilton sees Laurence Olivier’s Nelson, returning from his “triumphs,” emerging from the shadows a broken man only she can redeem.

Winston Churchill’s favorite movie, back when it was still possible to believe “there will always be an England” meant there would always be something more than a plot of ground with the name attached.

La Marseillaise (1938)
Director: Jean Renoir

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Renoir and Ford were two sides of a coin. Ford’s specialty was weaving the life-size concerns of ordinary people into the tangled fabric of larger-than life-historical tapestries. Renoir, being a “man of the Left”–and the thirties’ Left at that–was practically obligated to have a go at the same.

It was his bad luck to be utterly bad at it–every bit as bad as Ford was at portraying the New World’s moneyed aristocracy. In his greatest films (here, The Rules of the Game, The Grand Illusion) the representations of the proles, whether earnest or earthy (the default positions for any intellectual purporting to celebrate the Common Man), were always woodenly conceived and executed.

Our good luck is that this ended up being a minor problem. Whatever Renoir’s politics, he knew his own strengths (the same might be said of Ford, whose politics were much more complicated, though, not, I believe, the complete mystery some have made of them). Beyond society itself, the great, sensitive portraits in his films–the ones he and his actors lavished real care on–were of the aristocracy, the nobility, the landed classes, and, here, the King, Louis XVI (pictured above, among his legions, as played by Renoir’s brother, Pierre).

One of the many reasons Renoir is so revered today is that he saw the collapse of France coming. Deep down, he must have known what that collapse meant: In essence, that, despite its long arc, the French Revolution had failed, with reverberations that will be felt until France is no more.

That was worth noting on the eve of WWII. If this political year somehow ends up marking another break with the past, it will be worth remembering in the Age to come.

War and Peace (1966)
Director: Sergey Bondarchuk

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What? You mean Russia and “Europe” have never been chums? Ever?

Of course no film can match the pure narrative depth and scope of Tolstoy’s mind-blowing novel, but this effort from the high tide of the Soviet Union’s crudely failed attempt to do what the super-sophisticated European Union is about to fail at as well, comes as close as anything can.

King Vidor’s 1956 Hollywood version has much to recommend it. Audrey Hepburn was a fine Natasha, Anita Ekberg a definitive Helene, Herbert Lom a Napoleon capable of making you feel for the man without quite forgiving him. The retreat from Moscow will never be done better. I’ve watched it a dozen times, but never without realizing that nothing can overcome whatever hallucination led someone to think Henry Fonda, great as he was, could make even a serviceable Pierre.

That’s well taken care of here, by Bondarchuk himself. He seems to be channeling Jean Renoir’s director/actor turn in The Rules of the Game, which was itself probably modeled on Tolstoy’s Pierre. Better than that, Bondarchuk found the definitive Natasha in Lyudmila Savaleya (Hepburn was great, but there’s an insurmountable advantage in being Russian when you’re playing the consummate Russian heroine).

The other big advantage in making a state-sponsored national epic? No time restraints. This runs north of seven hours, so you’ll either get lost or get bored (just like with the novel). But, just like the novel, if you stick with it, the rewards are enormous. And it’s worth remembering that Tolsoy’s various Russias–the one he lived in even more so than the one he remembered and imagined–were not far from collapse either.

Robin Hood (1991)
Director: John Irvin

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Talk about pre-civilizational. This deceptively modest rendering of the legend got swamped by the flashy Kevin Costner version that came out at the same time. Being ten times as good doesn’t always help.

Uma Thurman makes an odd, though not entirely ineffective, Maid Marion. (The role has been surprisingly hard to cast. Even Olivia De Havilland wasn’t quite right for it, she was just so luminous in Technicolor it didn’t matter. The definitive Marion was Glynis Johns, who, under the name of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor, in a story set at his court, played the type to sublime perfection in Disney’s The Sword and the Rose. She somehow missed getting the part under the right name, in the right setting, when, with much of the same cast and crew, the studio made its own excellent version of the Robin Hood story a year earlier. Sometimes, the gears of the Cosmos slip just that little tantalizing bit, leaving us with insoluble mysteries.) And, for some reason, Nottingham has been split into two men, one a touch sympathetic, the other nasty-to-the-bone, neither named Nottingham.

But forget all that. It’s glorious.

We’re spared the return of good King Richard (or much reference to him at all, though Edward Fox has a fine cameo as a querulous Prince John), and spun straight back into tribalist politics, twisting Norman round Saxon and vice versa. Bergin’s Robin isn’t standing for the rights of Englishman as much as his own pride. Unlike any other version I’ve seen, his self-knowledge isn’t complete from the get-go–he doesn’t know who he is until events force him to accept that, if he doesn’t bring an end to the misery, no one will.

And If “justice” results?

So be it!

The Long Good Friday (1980)
Director: John Mackenzie

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Meet Harold and his Maid Marion, Victoria. No last names. He’s a man of the people, straight up from the streets. She’s either slumming upper class, or playing at posh, up from the same streets. Hard to tell.

Together, they rule the London underworld, with their sights set on moving.up. Today London, tomorrow the world.

Then a bomb blows up in a car and their world starts spinning. By the time it stops, they’ve done Shakespearean melodrama (nobody has a last name) and the good old gangster film proud.

This was Bob Hoskins’ breakout film. I don’t know who won the lead Oscars for 1980 without looking it up, but, trust me, whoever they were, he and Helen Mirren wasted them.

All those are plenty good reasons to watch this any old time, but the lesson for the long, hot summer coming is just this: It can always be worse.

The Long Riders (1980)
Director: Walter Hill

THE LONG RIDERS, front from left: Amy Stryker, James keach as Jesse James, Savannah Smith, Stacy Keach as Frank James, Fran Ryan, 1980, © United Artists

The most nuanced and effective look at the American Robin Hood, Jesse James, brought too close to get off lightly under the guise of romantic legend. You want tribalist politics? Try Savannah Smith’s Zee James (Jesse’s wife) giving a deathly quiet reading of a line so primordial you can miss it’s import if you aren’t paying strict attention.

“You gonna make ’em pay Jesse?”

That’s after the Pinkertons, trying to stand for justice just this once, accidentally (or, perhaps, “accidentally”) have killed Jesse’s little brother with a firebomb.

You gonna make ’em pay Jesse?

On earth, in every Age of Disintegration, that is all ye know, and all ye need know.

(Best scene: A brutal frontier barroom knife fight between David Carradine’s Cole Younger and James Remar’s Sam Starr, the half-breed husband from whom the woman born Myra Maybelle Shirley, played wonderfully here by Pamela Reed, took the famous form of her name).

(Second best scene: Zee James and two other women daring the Pinkertons to shoot them on their porch.)

(Not quite fatal flaw: The Northfield Raid being drag-g-g-g-g-ed down by copious and pretentious use of the era’s Wild Bunch-style slo-mo.)

A Perfect Murder (1998)
Director: Andrew Davis

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A re-imagining of one of Hitchcock’s classy, entertainments, Dial M For Murder, which it bests by miles. Reduced to plot, it is, like its predecessor, a slick, satisfying, murder-for-hire tale with a twist (look at the picture above and guess who’s going to murder who–look again after you watch the movie).

Michael Douglas is the typecast Wall Street buccaneer, Gwyneth Paltrow the typecast debutante trophy wife with social justice tendencies (she’s a trust fund baby who works for the U.N., and she’s Gwyneth Paltrow, how typecast can you get?), and Viggo Mortensen the typecast low-life.

That’s on the surface.

Underneath, it’s a Death Cage match between a couple of born-to-be Manhattanites (who cares where they really came from), whose abiding concern for the social niceties they’ve mastered in order to run in place is subsumed by the more human emotions: lust, greed and revenge.

Make of that what you will in this election year.

The Conservation (1974)
Francis Ford Coppola

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Just remember. No matter who the president is or will be, they are still listening.

You didn’t think the cost of empire was gonna be nothing did you?

Happy Fourth of July!

SCRIBE (Michael Herr, R.I.P.)

Sunshine, blue skies and 2016, please go away…

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Happens I just read (and mini-reviewed) his masterpiece, Dispatches, here mere days ago. I don’t have much to add, except to note that two of the best filmmakers of his, or any, era, Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and Stanley Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket), tried to capture what he had written on film. He even contributed to the scripts. It didn’t help. They didn’t come close. He wrote one of those books where any given word might be worth a thousand pictures. I hope he found a little peace here. It would have been little enough reward for doing the best job of anyone describing why we’ve never walked away from ’68 and never will.

For his memory, then…

 

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WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Last Spitfire….And What She Took With Her)

Paper Moon (1973, D. Peter Bogdanovich)

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When I was a boy and went to carnivals, my father used to spend a bit more time than the average dad explaining how each game was rigged and how not to get taken for a mark. I think this started when I was maybe seven or eight, which meant he was on this particular case even before he got saved and became a minister.

He was warning me against the sharpers, of course, but he was also warning me against a younger version of himself–the version that was on the other side of the short con before he was transformed by meeting the woman who would become my mother.

All of which means I’m apt to feel a little closer than most to the con-man’s world of Paper Moon–and perhaps respond to that world a little more viscerally.

This might not have ever been quite my life…

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Nor this…

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But, allowing for a gender change, this certainly could have been…

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Or this…

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Or, among many other scenes, certainly this (even down to a five being changed for a ten, though, to be fair, my brother never reported being driven down this path, a sign that my father might have had at least a few more “scruples” than Moses Pray, even if they still belonged to somebody else)…

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And that’s before you get into dropping twenties or selling Deluxe Editions of the King James to widows.

Paper Moon was released in 1973, near the end (1968–74) of the New Golden Age in Hollywood, which–at least according to the standard narrative–began closing down rather quickly when the blockbuster success of Jaws in the summer of 1975 transformed both the business and the art of making movies.

Well, you know how fond I am of “standard narratives,” even when they do have a grain of truth in them.

So I’d just add that it was probably the culture that was being transformed and Hollywood did what Hollywood does–follow along.

But, in any case, Paper Moon–which I revisited for the first time in years this weeknow plays like a story reflected in a double mirror. A razor-sharp, but loving look at the old, mostly economic, Depression (which ended with World War II, more or less) just before the new, mostly spiritual Depression (which is with us yet) fully set in.

However many directions it moves in, it’s a comedy with poignant moments. Not having seen it for so long, though, I found myself both laughing out loud (which movies rarely make me do anymore, not even when I know I should be laughing) and wondering where it all went.

Because this movie is very much about the can-do spirit. It’s purely American not so much because it couldn’t have been set anywhere else, but because it couldn’t have been set anywhere else for purely spiritual reasons.

Namely, no other culture ever made Spitfires quite like the American Spitfire.

And no Spitfire was ever quite as definitive as Tatum O’Neal’s Addie Pray is in this movie.

In 1973, she was part of a long line that stretched back at least as far as Jo March and ran straight through to True Grit’s Mattie Ross, with stops along the way for characters as otherwise divergent as Scarlett O’Hara, Scout Finch and the Disney version of the tomboy (usually played by Hayley Mills in her honorary American phase).

That line–like so much else–ended in the seventies.

Here, actually.

There have been plenty of subsequent attempts to carry it forward. The concept has hardly died off. But, except for Tatum’s own subsequent reprisal in The Bad News Bears, there’s been nothing since that even approaches either iconography or a new twist on the theme.

It was interesting to learn, in the DVD’s “making of” documentary, which I hadn’t seen before, that–contrary to another standard narrative (or at least a standard assumption) Tatum was cast first.

Director Peter Bogdonavich’s then wife, Polly Platt, suggested her because of her “whiskey voice.” Despite her never having acted, Bogdonavich was intrigued enough to meet with her and liked what he saw (and heard). That the subsequent deal included her dad, with whom the director had just shared a big success in What’s Up Doc?, (on the set of which Platt had first encountered that whiskey voice) was a bonus.

Serendipity then.

Not a lot of eight-year-old kids have white-hot movie star dads (with the attendant “bone structure,” which gets such a nice run in the script here), access to whiz kid A-list directors and whiskey voices.

That late in the Spitfire game, all those aspects were probably necessary.

And, even with all that, it wasn’t a given that any kid so young would produce such a staggering performance. It was/is so good that Bogdonavich–as a certain style of male is wont to do with women of any age who have got to some place he can’t quite fathom–spent a lot of years claiming more or less full credit for it, though his commentary here suggests age and experience have tempered hubris (though not his very justifiable pride in the film itself).

Of course it was also so good that it probably wrecked a few lives, including Tatum O’Neal’s own.

Her dad never really met any version of my mom I guess. At least not in time.

And winning a well deserved Oscar at nine years old leaves a long way to fall. Maybe longer if your white hot co-star father and that whiz kid director are so miffed at being left off the list of nominees they don’t even bother to show up.

Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal, Peter Bogdonavich and Polly Platt all seemed to have entered a charmed circle in order to make this miraculous thing. At its conclusion, they were all officially on top of the world, where they might very reasonably have expected to stay for a long, healthy run.

Instead, none of them were ever quite the same again. They all did good work, here and there. None ever again reached quite so high.

Strange then, that of all that motley crew who “transformed” movies just before–coincidentally or not–movies went away, it was Bogdonavich (often, and I think wrongly, counted among the lighter weights next to Peckinpah, Coppola, Penn, Scorcese, et al) who provided the images that, in looking back, best anticipated the bleak moral consequences of the coming age, when short cons would rule far more than just traveling salesmen, carnival midways and Hollywood dreams.

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