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.

THEMES? WE DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ THEMES! (Monthly Book Report: August through December, 2018)

The last five months of 2018 were a busy time overall but a slow reading period. I read as many books in January as I read from August to December. Still, such as they are–a pulp near-masterpiece set in the world of pro football; a couple from a pulp master (one of which was a re-read); a tantalizing book about the original October Surprise; and a WWII combat memoir by Great Britain’s last great man of letters. if there was a theme in there, I couldn’t find it.

North Dallas Forty (1973)
Peter Gent

Though it occasionally bogs down in Gent’s need to project his protagonist’s (a wide receiver on a Dallas Cowboys-style team named Phil Elliot) sensitivity, most of this goes by like a speeding bullet. Some of its more sensational aspects have long since lost their shock value but Elliot’s moral outrage and eye for both his circumstance’s patent absurdity and his own fatal attraction to it, give it enough relevance to count as a pulp classic. For all its keen insider awareness of the world it depicts, the novel a kind of detective story. Not whodunit or even “why done it,” but will the only man who has any sense of moral order even survive, let alone solve anything.?

Even if you’ve seen the excellent 1979 movie with Nick Nolte, you won’t know the answer until the very end.

And you won’t be comforted.

Dead Low Tide  (1953) and The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1975)
(John D. MacDonald)

Dead Low Tide is early MacDonald and it shows. Things that would later become hallmarks of his best writing–the eye for physical detail and physical space, the craft of his action scenes, the knack for trenchant social commentary–are all present but in nascent form. Without their full development, the story’s tragedies play more like bummers than events that might scar either the soul or the social fabric. It would rank in the lower third of the Travis McGee novels and is nowhere near as good as Cape Fear. Still a swift read, though. You can spot the talent, struggling to find a proper form.

There are no such problems with The Dreadful Lemon Sky, one of the most important pulp novels ever written.

I reviewed it a couple of years ago and mentioned its prescience in giving a full-blooded portrait of a Bill Clinton-style Southern pol on the make in the Deep South circa 1975.

But there’s much more. It’s really a layered look at the men who are always working behind the scenes to give us such lovely choices (and Clinton’s sociopathy isn’t unique among post-modern pols–it isn’t even unusual, something I don’t think would have surprised MacDonald if he had lived to see it) and the social order where such men breed.

You can take cold comfort from MacDonald dispatching his villain by having him stung to death by fire ants–the most Florida death you’ll ever find. But you can’t say we weren’t warned.

Trick or Treason: The 1980 October Surprise Mystery (1993)
Robert Parry

For those who have forgotten, or never knew, the “October Surprise” was a theory that held Vice Presidential nominee George H.W. Bush and other high ranking members of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign conducted secret meetings with Iran to ensure that American hostages would not be released before that year’s presidential election and boost Jimmy Carter’s chance for reelection.

I have a personal stake in the subject for two reasons. One is that, in the early 80s, my father sat next to a retired general at a rubber chicken dinner on the Southern Baptist missionary circuit. Without divulging anything classified, the general nonetheless strongly intimated that, at very least, Carter’s hostage rescue mission was sabotaged by forces inside the American government as part of a plot to make him a one-term president. The Intelligence Community, as it has come to be called, didn’t care much for Ronald Reagan either. Their hopes lay in Bush himself (one of their own) or Ted Kennedy (who, after Chappaquiddick, they owned outright and who did indeed mount a strong primary challenge to Carter that year).

All of which leads to my second level of personal interest–my belief that 1980 was the year said Intelligence Community fulfilled the program that had begun with John Kennedy’s assassination (whether they had anything to do with the assassination is almost irrelevant–they certainly took advantage of it to begin whittling away the power of the elected government which they held in complete contempt, then and now) and reduced all subsequent choices to their own preferences.

Which left only one question for me, as I perused Parry’s rather dry book. Did it tend to prove or disprove my theories?

I’m disappointed to say it didn’t do much of either. But since it is not so much an account of any government or campaign’s shady dealings as proof of just how difficult it is to pin down even one fact such forces don’t want you to know, it still served a purpose. It showed me how unlikely either the October Surprise or any other possible misconduct in high places will ever see the light of day.

If that’s something you need to have proved beyond all doubt, this is the book for you.

Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma (1992)
George MacDonald Fraser

Though Fraser was never shy about offering his own opinion, this is really a memoir of his unit. It took me a while to sort them out, in part because Fraser has them speak in their own voices. Here’s a sample:

“We’ll all get killed”

“Fook this!”

“Whee’s smeukin’ then?”

“Booger off Forster, scrounge soomw’eers else.”

“Ahh, ye miserable, mingy Egremont twat!”

. . . .

“Idle Scotch git. Ye want us to strike the fookin’ matches, an a’?”

Having spent a few hundred pages with “Jock” MacDonald’s crew, I now long for the chance to call someone an “idle Scotch git” but I confess page after page of this took some getting used to. I wasn’t even aware of the comradery creeping up on me until near the very end, when, in one of the last British campaigns, in Burma, on a field far from Glory’s eye, Fraser made me feel the loss of men who, a moment before, were nothing more than an annoyance to either author or reader.

I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Knowing the creator of Flashman had a rare ability to journey through the British Empire’s mighty time and space, never losing sight of either its majesty or its absurdity, it was only to be expected that he would be a master observer of his own role in its dying breath.

…Til next time. I promise it won’t be so long.