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…

LOGAN LUCKY (At the Multiplex: November, 2017)

Logan Lucky (2017)
D. Steven Soderbergh

This one is probably worth seeing twice. I don’t say that about a lot of modern movies, including some that are at least as good as Logan Lucky. But the heist plot is compelling–updating the old horse-track thefts lovingly detailed in movies like The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956) to the world of NASCAR. The acting is excellent all around and, unlike Soderbergh’s similarly byzantine (and massively overpraised) Traffic (2000), it builds suspense rather than disperses it, partly by giving reasonable people a few characters they can root for.

Those characters include the half-smart brothers played by Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as though they are exactly half-smart, which means their scheme has just about a fifty-fifty chance of succeeding. Enough of these movies, from The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 950) to now, have ended badly enough for the protagonists for this one to make you feel it might do the same. And enough of these movies, from Gambit to now, have ended happily enough, for hope to remain a reasonable outcome.

Soderbergh seems to know something about splitting that difference. He should make more heist flicks in this vein (which is quite different that the everybody-is-a-star vibe of his Ocean’s Eleven-Twelve-Thirteen franchise, which I modestly enjoyed but have never felt compelled to revisit).

Meanwhile, if I do revisit this one, it will be partly to judge Tatum and Driver’s performances against the known outcome. I have a feeling they made all the exact right decisions, but I’ll withhold judgment on that for a second viewing. Meanwhile, on the basis of that and the plotting alone, I can heartily recommend a first viewing for any fan of the genre.

A few things reach beyond those parameters, though: Starting with Leann Rimes’ performance of “America the Beautiful,” which is on YouTube. I’m not going to link it because it has to be seen/heard in the context of the film to be fully appreciated as the act of genius it is, the first complete obliteration of the distance between parody and the modern style of Passion. I literally couldn’t tell whether she was utterly sincere or wickedly spoofing herself (and every other melisma-addicted performer from Whitney Houston on down), just that it’s the first performance in history that works as well either way (thus making it an apt metaphor for the finely balanced plot). There’s also a funny performance from a nearly unrecognizable Hilary Swank (playing an uptight Fed) that is slightly sabotaged by the one-too-many-twists ending, and a matching one from a wholly unrecognizable Daniel Craig (playing a con who is whatever the opposite of uptight is). All these things, plus an unusually well-chosen-and-applied soundtrack, give me the feeling this is one rare new film that might hold together even past a second viewing. Anyway I’m looking forward to finding out.

I would watch it again, though, even if none of these other fine elements were present, for the performance by child-of-Hollywood Farrah MacKenzie, who gets the mountain accent that every one of the adults shades a little too close to parody or actorly precision just right, and provides the film’s anchor not so much with a beautifully played but rather obvious heart-tug moment involving a John Denver song as by simply being genuine in a movie that has fronting in its bones.

If there’s justice in the world, she’ll get an Oscar nod.

And “It’s my talent!” will become a catchphrase.

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

At least according to Terry Teachout, this idea has been going around. Terry’s own list is here (it’s a pretty good one). The idea is to take each year of your life and list your favorite film from that year.

For me, “favorite” is a simple concept. It’s whatever resides at the matrix of what I like the best and what has meant the most. I tend to emphasize this quality over what I think is “great” anyway (though, unsurprisingly, there is considerable overlap…we tend to elevate what we like, though I also like to believe that what we like can elevate us).

I want to drill down a bit, though (including links to those films I’ve written about at length and mentioning the close competition, when it exists), so I’m going to post these by decade…starting conveniently enough with the decade I was born in and am most fascinated by…

1960 The Apartment (Billy Wilder) (over Swiss Family Robinson and Psycho)

1961 The Guns of Navarone (J. Lee Thompson…and, for once, truth in advertising)

1962 The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn) (over The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ride the High Country, Cape Fear, The Manchurian Candidate…I could go on. Easily the strongest film year of my lifetime.)

1963 Charade (Stanley Donen)  (over The Great Escape and Hud)

1964 The T.A.M.I. Show (Steve Binder) (Actually a strong year, but….no competition)

1965 A High Wind in Jamaica (Alexander Mackendrick) (over That Darn Cat and The Truth About Spring)

1966 Gambit  (Ronald Neame) (over A Man For All Seasons and El Dorado)

1967 The Graduate (Mike Nichols) (over Wait Until Dark, Hombre, Don’t Look Back and the Soviet version of War and Peace)

1968 Monterrey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker) (over Where Eagles Dare…Interesting decision if I took one of those liberties I’m prone to take and considered Elvis’ Comeback Special a film. Glad I don’t have to make it.)

1969 Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler) (over Support Your Local Sheriff...it was a very strange year.)

Overall, a strong decade. As will be the 70s. After that….dicey.

 

 

 

 

 

MY FAVORITE HEIST FLICK: COMEDY DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

I have a thing for heist flicks. I have such a thing for heist flicks that I find it hard to believe I’ve operated this blog for four-and-a-half years without writing about at least one of them at length.

Today, I’ll fix that.

Heist flicks can be broadly defined: What’s a kidnapping movie but a heist flick about a stolen body? There must be some kind of horror film division where souls are filched eh? Westerns about land grabs? Yeah, I’ve heard of those.

You can stretch “heist” almost as far as you can stretch “noir.”

Forget all that. I’m sticking to the basics.

For the purposes of this little exercise, the heist flick concept will be limited to stories about some person or persons trying to steal some form of loot.

That ought to keep it simple.

And within that basic definition there are two fundamental approaches: Comedies and tragedies.

I’ll get to the tragedies later. Today I’ll stick to the comedies.

Better yet, I’ll stick to a period that stretches from the early sixties to the early seventies, when nearly all the best comedy heist flicks were made.

There were good ones before (Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, from 1955, a likely model of inspiration, comes directly to mind).

And I’m sure there have been good ones since (can’t think of any off-hand but the world’s a big place and I don’t like to say never).

But the best were nearly all made in those golden years between 1963 and 1971, when so many other pleasant things were going on, most of which these films never acknowledge.

They did have certain themes in common beyond the obvious heist structure. They all kept a fine balance between real comedy and real suspense…something Hitchcock himself only managed a few times. They all had genuinely clever plots that bordered on the feasible without inviting too much realism in  And they all had a developing love story at their center, which mirrored and enhanced both the comedy and the suspense.

My favorite is my favorite because it did the best job of balancing the love story with the rest. And considering who all and what all was involved in defining the genre, that’s saying something.

So….taking the best in chronological order (any other order would be an exercise in absurdity) and saving the very best for last:

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Charade (1963)
Director: Stanley Donen
Love Story: Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn
Heist Object: A Stamp (sort of!)

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Topkapi (1964)
Director: Jules Dassin
Love Story: Peter Ustinov and His Sorry Life
Heist Object: Emerald-encrusted Dagger

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The Moon-Spinners (1964)
Director: James Neilsen
Love Story: Hayley Mills (not the character she played so much as the actress) and the Isle of Crete.
Heist Object: Pearls (which have already been stolen…is there such a thing as a Reverse Heist Flick?)

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Kaleidoscope (1966)
Director: Jack Smight
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Oh! Susannah York
Heist Object: Casino Cash

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How to Steal a Million (1966)
Director: William Wyler
Love Story: Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole (she made a romantic lead out of him…no small feat)
Heist Object: Paintings

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Waterhole #3 (1967)
Director: William Graham
Love Story: James Coburn and Margaret Blye’s Daddy (played by Caroll O’Connor…it’s complicated…a horse named Blue also figures prominently)
Heist Object: Gov…ern…ment…Gold

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Two Mules for Sister Sara (1969)
Director: Don Siegel
Love Story: Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine (she made a romantic lead out of him…not even Audrey Hepburn could have managed that!)
Heist Object: Government Gold…it was a thing then.

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The Italian Job (1969)
Director: Peter Collinson
Love Story: Michael Caine and Noel Coward (though Margaret Blye once again makes for a lovely distraction)
Heist Object: Mafia Gold…being protected by the Government (a nice twist)

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Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
Director: Brian Hutton
Love Story: Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland (No attempt to involve Clint in that end of it this time. Telly and Donald were wonderful actors…but they were no Shirley MacLaine).
Heist Object: Government Gold (though this time it’s the Nazi government)

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Dollars (aka $) (1971)
Director: Richard Brooks
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn (though a subplot involving Gert Frobe and a gold bar also works beautifully on many levels)
Heist Object: Safety Deposit Boxes….that belong to crooks..and a nice way to close down the concept’s golden age!

I’m sure there are one or two from the time period that I either haven’t seen or have forgotten.

Plus the one I won’t mention until I’m naming my favorite (though those who are sufficiently hip to the genre or the period can guess from that faux-noirish top photo, which I found myself unable to resist).

I’m sure there are other films in the same vein and of the same quality that were made outside this time period, but, again, laying aside Hitchcock in lighthearted mode as the obvious source for much of this, I either don’t know about them or haven’t seen them.

So I’ll stick to my premise.

There was a special hybrid of comedy/suspense heist films…and almost all the best ones were made in the space of a turbulent decade.

Few were made before, probably because whatever turbulence filmmakers felt the need to channel was then best channeled through the device of romantic comedy or some other form of farce. It’s no accident that most of the heist films I named above, and the favorite I’ll name below, were superb romantic comedies as well. And it’s no accident that the old forms of romantic comedy, including the screwball kind, were falling out of fashion, both critically and commercially, at the same time the heist comedy romances flourished.

Something had to plug the gap between marriage-as-the-object-of-desire and marriage-as-nothing-at-all.

What better than loot?

Later on (and by later, I mean a year or two), this whole approach became problematic because the gap closed and marriage was no longer even part of the gold standard. More to the point, the presumption that marriage itself was both the logical and desirable end of any love story–even one involving loot–simply became untenable as a cultural assumption.

And once a cultural assumption becomes untenable it loses its force as a narrative device. That might be why subsequent attempts to remake some of these films fell completely flat. (The Trouble With Charlie, Jonathan Demme’s reboot of Charade, may be the worst film ever made by a director of his talent. I do not say this lightly. The remake/sequel of The Italian Job is fun for about five minutes. That’s about the length of time it takes to transition from the end of the original to the sequel part. I haven’t seen the remake of my favorite, but the fact that it stayed in development hell for years hasn’t made me any way anxious to fill this little gap.)

The other thing that hasn’t made me anxious to see a remake of my favorite–not even when Jennifer Aniston was attached to it for a while–is that my favorite is perfect.

There is never a reason to remake anything that’s perfect.

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Gambit (1966)
Director: Ronald Neame
Love Story: Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine (who, in the romantic lead department, needed less help than any man not named Cary Grant, meaning, for once, Shirley didn’t have to work at being anything but Shirley).
Heist Object: The Bust of the Li Szu…or is it?

Gambit is the type of film that makes the crit-illuminati throw up their collective defenses. It’s always spoken of fondly but–horrors!–never taken seriously.

And since the job of the crit-illuminati is to shape the expectations of the rest of us–and I’m as susceptible as the next person (or was in youth anyway…I didn’t start out mistrusting everyone), I had to see it about ten times before I realized just how much better than really good such things can be.

Such things can tell us…things.

If we let them.

I’d never let that spoil the fun, though.

What makes this film good–really, really good–are the usual things that make movies really good. Great actors making difficult things look easy. (Watch the magnificent aplomb of the great Herbert Lom as he goes through a series of emotionally complicated shifts in character and perspective without making the least bit of fuss. You’ll have to make a point of watching because, even then, he’ll never let you catch him at it.) Real movie stars, Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine in this case, in the glory of youth. Good tight writing and direction from established pros (Ronald Neame is a British version of Martin Ritt–all he ever seemed to do was make wonderful movies).

All that’s a given.

What gives the film force, though, a force that has carried through however many dozen viewings I’ve had a chance to give it, is that Caine’s Harry Tristan Dean and MacLaine’s Nicole Chang, spend the movie finding something that really is better than all the money in the world (and we know this because all the money in the world is what Lom,  playing “the world’s richest man,” has). Namely, each other.

It really was acting, of course, and acting of the highest order. Neither Michael Caine or Shirley MacClaine were exactly known for being the monogamous type.

But they, and everyone involved in all of these films, came out of cultures that valued forms of permanence, including especially the form that starts with “til death do us part.” And, having mastered the one art every great actor has to master, that of observation, they play out Gambit‘s romantic implications with such natural ease that the deepest cynic would have no trouble believing their characters will make some form of “til death do us part,” work…or that it will leave a hole in the world if they do not.

Those kind of assumptions are all lost now and that’s the real reason nobody makes this kind of movie stick anymore. It’s certainly not for lack of trying and, amidst all the usual blogging/facebooking/tweeting/think-piecing laments about the absence of “basic story-telling” in modern narratives (be it film, stage or page) no one really wants to acknowledge the underlying reason, because it would mean admitting it as part of the price of “freedom,” in this case, the freedom to live in a world where “til death do us part,” and “well, as long as you won’t be here in the morning,” carry the same cultural weight.

It might or might not make for a better world. We’ll find out soon enough because right now we’re living in the afterglow of a cultural collapse which hasn’t made its own force felt as economic or military collapse. Here’s hoping we’ll be the first people to avoid facing the usual consequences.

But, however it works out in the “real” world, it sure makes for a hole in the world of narrative fiction the meantime. “Stories”–as opposed to the shiny-object distractions filmmakers (and novelists and playwrights), now strive to deliver across the board, often with an impenetrable layer of “seriousness” ladled on top–depend on cultural assumptions, the value of “til death do us part” being one of the principals that sustained basic narratives for about five thousand years, from the birth of narrative, until yesterday.

Right up to the moment Gambit was being made in fact.

Which is why a light entertainment from the mid-sixties carries more weight than we have any right expect, and not just because Shirley MacLaine, the actress of her age, gets to be as good as she was in any of her richly deserved Oscar-nominated performances.

Good and necessary as Caine is (as good and necessary as it gets), it’s her show, just the way the old screwballs were always the woman’s show.

For starters, she gets to use her dancer’s body more than most dancers do in actual musicals. From the tight little walk that the movie’s opening tracks through a crowded Hong Kong street, you could be forgiven for believing she’ll get right to it. Instead, she spends the next twenty minutes being the one thing you would bet Shirley MacLaine could never be, which is bo-r-r-r-ing, If you spend the whole time waiting for her to move a muscle in her face, don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

It might be the best pure acting job of her career, because the joy (as opposed to fun, which this movie always is) starts when she starts to talk and it turns out she’s a girl who really, really likes to talk. Shirley MacLaine on a movie screen could never be boring when she talked, because she never talked like anyone else. Here, once she starts, she talks a blue streak and even Michael Caine, completely in control to that point, has to run to keep up.

After that, it becomes a game of romantic yin-and-yang. Every time he gets dumber, she gets smarter and, when she finally gets dumber again, he gets smarter again just in the nick of time. And we realize that if he gets dumber a little more often than she does, it’s because she’s seen more of the world than he has…and maybe even more than he thinks he has.

So, yeah, for all those reasons and more, Gambit is my favorite comic heist flick. But it’s also my favorite because it’s a reminder that, when we bother to look back, the moment of our forgetting is tantalizingly near.

It’s as if we could still reach back and touch it, maybe even reclaim what we’ve forgotten if we wanted to. One moment, movies like this seemed simple, even inevitable. The next moment, what we call “now,” they seem impossible.

So, now, whenever Gambit nears its end, and the actress of the age just gone by starts once again talking about “all that Mongolian clay,” I’m no longer sure whether to laugh or cry.

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Then Nicole arrives, and she climbs into the heavily protected cage. But she sets of the alarm.The last bit’s the tell…because, across an uncrowded room that’s taken their whole lives to reach, it’s obvious the Li Szu is no longer the object of desire.