THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (May/June, 2020)

Okay, once more not even close to the last ten I watched but I’m tryin’. really I am. On the upside, a lot more first and second viewings than usual. Here goes:

May 25-A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, d. Elia Kazan, 2nd Viewing)

Well, it had been twenty years, so it was time. Vivien Leigh still scared the bejesus out of me but at least I knew it was coming. Brando’s best performance by miles, though you can still see her cocking an eyebrow and hear her whispering sotto voce, “Yes, dear, but are you willing to tip yourself into madness?” And if you listen close you can still hear him saying…”Maybe?” The question was never asked again so he was never forced to resolve it before the short journey to self-parody was completed. Everyone else is terrific acting their little hearts out in the background. If you wonder whether he knew what happened, just study the sad arc of his life. One of the essential American movies, though not perhaps for the reasons most people seem to think.

May 26-Viva Zapata! (1952, d. Elia Kazan, 1st Viewing)

Okay, truth be told, I’ve had the Elia Kazan box sitting around for at least a decade, trying to watch them all in order and just waiting until I was up to Streetcar again. (I broke the sequence to re-watch Man on a Tightrope, about which more when I do my Handy Ten on Gloria Grahame). This was next in line and another chance to see early Brando. He only had to deal with Anthony Quinn and Dr. No in this one so he was, alas, in his comfort zone. Still pretty interesting, but given the talents involved, I couldn’t help thinking it might have been more. And frankly, the Great Actor of the Age wasn’t as convincing a Mexican as Chuck Heston in his much-derided Touch of Evil turn.

May 30-The Great Escape (1963, d. John Sturges, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well, for all the reasons I’ll always watch it, up to and including the moment when Virgil Hilts (not Steve McQueen, not his stunt man, Virgil Hilts, who by that point is no longer fictional or even a composite) make that leap. But the reaction shots alone are always worth the price of admission and time spent. Plus, it’s out in a great new eye-popping transfer from the Criterion Collection. Get it if you can!

June 2-The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015, d. Guy Ritchie, 1st Viewing)

I’m always looking for good popcorn in the bargain bins of America while they last. Took a chance on this one and I’ll say it’s…pretty good. Seemed like I was just catching hold of the odd rhythm when it ended so I’ll probably watch it again at some point. Given some of the things they’ve made franchises of, I’m surprised this hasn’t produced at least one sequel.

June 3-The Last of Sheila (1973, d. Herbert Ross, 3rd Viewing)

Because it had been a long time, I had it lying around, and somebody or other was lauding it on Twitter. Thought what I thought the other two times I watched it….Wanted James Coburn to have the last laugh and he doesn’t. Wish there was more Dyan Cannon…and there isn’t. Still, diverting, as, with that cast, it could hardly fail to be.

June 5-Dance, Girl, Dance (1940, d. Dorothy Arzner, 1st Viewing)

Out this summer on Criterion, (with notes from my blog-pal Sheila O’Malley, who also did the same for The Great Escape…the lady has range). This is a combo backstage musical/women’s picture from the only female director working under contract for a major Hollywood studio at the time and it’s a small gem. It’s odd, disorienting, feature is that a young Lucille Ball makes a young Maureen O’Hara look dowdy. Granted, the worldly, wise-cracking dame always has an advantage, but I guarantee that’s the last time that happened! A cracking good time for anyone who has the good taste to like this sort of thing.

June 6-The Wild and the Innocent (1959, d. Jack Sher, 1st Viewing)

This was the first film in a four-movie set of Audie Murphy westerns I scored cheap on Amazon. It was the weakest of the lot and, like most of Murphy’s lesser efforts, still pretty entertaining. Even the eternally baby-faced Audie was a little long in the tooth to be playing the teenage frontier hick who’s never been to town. But it works out over the long run, with Gilbert Roland giving a nice twist on a sympathetic villain and a genuinely touching performance from Sandra Dee that suggests there might have been a lot more to her than heaven, Bobby Darin, or Hollywood allowed.

June 6-The Lincoln Lawyer (2011, d. Brad Furman, 2nd Viewing)

Now this is a popcorn movie, as good as it gets. So good, in fact, that it transcends the concept and has some insightful and occasionally moving things to say about this modern land that so many somebodies who weren’t paying attention during the whole Frozen Silence (1980-2016) or even the early Trump years, have suddenly awakened to find has turned into a crap-hole while they were busy staring at the disco ball. You want a sign of the Apocalypse: there’s been no sequel. What, are Matthew McConaughey and Marisa Tomei just too busy?

June 7-Liberty Heights (1999, d. Barry Levinson, 1st Viewing)

Another bargain bin pickup. I hadn’t seen any of Barry Levinson’s Baltimore movies except Diner, which is a big fave. This isn’t as good as Diner. Like all of Levinson’s movies, post Wag the Dog, it’s a little awkward, as if made by a man who is not sure he’s in the right profession any more. But it’s got a sweet spirit made melancholy by the distance the world has traveled in the wrong direction since its 50’s setting…or even since its 1999 release date. I could still swear the trailer had a scene that cut from a baseball crashing through a window, and kids scattering, to Joe Montegna saying (as only he could) “Put Joe DiMaggio on the phone.” In the movie that exists, it’s “Put the Fuhrer on the phone.” in response to the Jewish teenage protagonist dressing up as Hitler for Halloween. It was funnier in my head when it was Joe DiMaggio so if anybody knows where that movie went, let me know. I swear I didn’t dream it.

June 7-On the Waterfront (1954, d. Elia Kazan, 2nd Viewing)

I’m being a little hard on Brando, as happens from time to time, so let me just say that this is a great performance. I don’t think it’s anywhere near the greatest performance of all time–heck, I don’t even think it’s Brando’s greatest–see above), any more than I think Citizen Kane (a very great movie) is the greatest film of all time, but you can be pretty darn great and still not be the greatest ever. This was only the second time I watched it, and the first time I watched it without the baggage of unreasonable expectations. Now I just have to figure out why Noam Chomsky thought it was an anti-union, or even anti-Communist, film.

It could take a while.

Til then….

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

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.