HOW CAME WE HERE? (And Then There Was Hollywood)

Risky Business (1983)
D. Paul Brickman

[NOTE: Occasional strong language and possible spoilers.]

Slick, trashy, obvious and irresistible. Whatever it was meant to be–document, satire, pure product, personal statement (the writer/director, Paul Brickman, has done nothing of similar significance since)–Risky Business ended up as the definitive response of the Eighties to the Sixties.

Summation:

Up yours!

Or, as the movie has it, almost as trenchantly:

Sometimes you just gotta say what the fuck!

That’s the message. You can look around and judge the results for yourself. But don’t sell any movie short that caught the zeitgeist of its moment and tracked the future so well without pausing for breath.

If you were alive and culturally cognizant you know some of it. Even if you were neither you probably know the gist.

Hello Tom Cruise (the Last Movie Star). Hello Rebecca DeMornay (a considerable presence herself over the coming decade).

Hello 1980s.

Welcome to Hell, in other words.

Though it’s often characterized as satire–mocking, as opposed to reveling in, the new conventions–I give it more credit than that. Circa 1983, what was there to mock, as opposed to revel in?

Sure, the idea of materialism as the final consummation of the American Dream was making headway, but it hadn’t fully arrived. For that, you needed a Big Event, and while Risky Business wasn’t exactly the Beatles on Sullivan or even Jaws, it was big enough. This is how we will live, the movie seemed to say, with a force few others have ever matched. And, looking at it now (more fun than ever once you see it as Brett Kavanaugh’s Real Diary–if fun’s the word), you can see why not too many wanted to resist. It prettied up everything.

What seventeen-year-old boy from the suburbs (or anywhere else) has not wanted to bend Rebecca DeMornay’s long, Playmate body over a window seat or a stairwell or the inside of a subway car? And, absent Morality, which circa 1983, had been whupped to a frazzle, what would you think of him if she was on offer and he said no? To any sex at all, but especially guilt-free, consequence-free, Beautiful Hooker Sex?

Of course, the narrative trick in Risky Business is that it holds out the idea there just might be consequences after all. Not guilt, of course, (Morality being whupped and all that) but maybe going to jail….or at least being grounded. Maybe not being able to get your folks’ stuff back after you walk in the house and find it all gone?

Better yet, getting your face pounded in or your balls shot off by the Beautiful Hooker’s pimp? Either before or after he absconded with your folks’ stuff.

Any and all of that might have happened to Tom Cruise’s Joel Goodson. Even after you’v seen the movie you can’t dismiss the possibility some modern equivalent of penitence might be in order or at least in the offing. That it doesn’t come, that it all works out somehow (in grandly entertaining fashion I should hasten to add), turns out the be the point. How else could the Eighties demolish the Sixties? How else could all that Peace and Love be consigned to history’s ash-heap? (There’s even a scene where the old ethos is mocked openly but the rest of movie renders it gratuitous, one of the few false notes). How else could the film drive home its final message? Only hedonism remains.

I can say with some assurance that most of us didn’t need Tom Cruise dancing alone in his underwear and cool shirt to provide any pointers, just to codify the new reality. (The shirt was important–just your underwear was way too gay. Or fairy or fag or queer or homo, as those who thought putting the Sixties in the rear view mirror was an idea whose time had come, were more likely to say then, or, when they think no one’s listening, now.) I was a divided soul myself. I liked the part of the Sixties hippies had swiped from the New Testament (or its own reputed sources). By the time I saw Risky Business, I also knew that part had been vanquished.

The hedonism was being celebrated–and with Risky Business, given its own Testament and set of rituals, good for a generation at least–because it was all that was left, but also because, like all consequence-free behavior does in the moment–it felt good.

It’s only when you look around the house (if you’re still living with your parents), or the apartment (if you’ve made it to college or beyond) that you realize the come down from the high you got from dancing in a way you’ll never do in public (unless maybe intoxicated, which everyone knows is cheating because, that far gone, it isn’t really you), has only left you a little empty.

Where Risky Business approaches Art, and maybe not even accidental art, is in that empty moment, after Cruise and Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” have created the film’s iconography but before the plot kicks in, when the great problem of the Modern Age our now-despised forefathers created for us to muck about in is lurking in every room of Dad’s house, confronting our hero.

It’s name?

Boredom.

It’s where the otherwise self-repelling styles of Sixties and Eighties hedonism meet like lightning and thunder: The Teenager’s brain…and what to do.

What Joel Goodson would probably do on his own is nothing–maybe another dance that wouldn’t be quite as exciting, then poker with the boys, where they can drink beer and pretend to already be the bored, listless men they’ll become, bragging about the nookie they’ve never had but which otherwise defines their dreams–the only part of their existence that isn’t boring since they live at home and aren’t allowed to get drunk or high enough to forget where they are.

But Joel has a friend–I imagine anyone who has had as many friends as Joel had had one–who lives to get other people in the trouble he plans to avoid himself.

Joel’s friend is Miles.

Twenty minutes after Miles gets Joel in trouble by calling a Hooker, the Beautiful Hooker who came when the first, inevitable, Comically Transgendered Hooker didn’t work out, is riding in Joel’s Dad’s car, asking Miles if he likes excitement.

The question is pertinent since the Beautiful Hooker’s pimp is following along behind, shooting at them.

Even the first time you see the movie, you know it’s going to work out somehow, and one of the ways I give Risky Business enormous credit is that it doesn’t take the path of True Love. After all the plot machinations have played themselves out, the movie doesn’t cheat its own premise. The sex and the shooting and the playing with fire but not quite getting burned was the whole point.

Other parts of the movie want to have it both ways–that’s real hedonism, the avoidance of not merely pain but discomfort. But the end doesn’t offer a way out. It’s evident, even in the ending Hollywood imposed,  that Joel Goodson will live to feel empty again…and that the Beautiful Hooker has never felt otherwise.

They’re just coming down off bigger highs.

That was the story of the part of the Sixties that made the Eighties possible if not inevitable.

It’s never going to be told better.

The Last Movie Star was on his way.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE–FALLOUT (At the Multiplex: July, 2018)

Mission: Impossible–Fallout (2018)
D: Christopher McQuarrie

The first thing you can’t help noticing about the sixth installment of Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible franchise, is something that was still possible to ignore when the fifth installment was released in 2015. Cruise is no longer boyish.

I spent almost the entirety of Mission: Impossible–Fallout, trying to decide whether he needed this quality to still pull off Ethan Hunt…or anything else that makes him TOM CRUISE.

I enjoyed the movie, as I’ve enjoyed most of them (Tom Cruise movies, generally, and MI movies in particular). But I never did make up my mind.

Let’s just say that, in the future, I hope he’ll settle for having one woman swoon over him instead of three, and I hope against hope that the one woman will be Vanessa Kirby, who injects this installment with a dose of good old fashioned sex-for-its-own-sake like I haven’t seen in an action franchise since Caroline Munro undressed Roger Moore with a lewd wink in The Spy Who Love Me, 1977’s James Bond installment while she was trying to blow him out of the water from her little helicopter.

Bond being Bond and Moore being Moore, that couldn’t have lasted, even if the plot hadn’t demanded that he blow her out of the sky the next minute.

But Kirby’s character survived this round and I can only hope Cruise will have the good sense to bring her back.

Because, otherwise, this is just more of the same. If you liked the other installments, especially four and/or five–I did–you’ll like this one–I did.

Hollywood has been in the business of helping the remnants of the larger culture (and the political economy)  stop time since Cruise himself became a bona fide star. He’s been a big part of the process, too (I almost called it a ride, but that implies motion and motion would defeat the point of a Frozen Silence). The fun part, too, I’d say. And, not counting John Wayne in the after life, Cruise has has been a mega-star for as long as anyone ever has. Risky Business was released in 1983, when he was 21. By the early box office on MI6, he’s still going strong.

But it is coming to an end. Even Tom Cruise can’t stay a boy forever.

The acting part has never held him back. He’s been better than good in any number of serious projects going back to Rain Man. But his mega-stardom depends on movies like this so his success going forward will, I think, depend on his choice of co-stars, especially female leads.

My advice: Ditch the sensitive babes and build the next one around Kirby’s character. I think she was on the side of the angels in this one when it all came out in the wash (it’s Mission: Impossible so I don’t like to commit myself to these things). But either way, she could keep the fire burning for at least two more Missions Impossible.

And all kinds of extra credit if she brings back the trench coat.

The only other new or interesting thing here (and I wasn’t expecting or wanting anything new from a franchise that’s been this satisfying so I’m just making a point of order) is Angela Bassett as the big cheese at CIA (and thus the overseer of Cruise’s team, which is the kind of pure and righteous unit operating inside the decidedly impure and untrustworthy “real” CIA these sorts of movies are designed to make us believe can’t be all bad).

Bassett’s a fine, underused actress. In perhaps not unrelated news, she’s also black.

Since she’s the face of the CIA here, in a franchise where the head of Ethan Hunt’s own special unit is never above suspicion, she’s really not above suspicion. Unless maybe you start asking yourself–I did–whether the handlers of a billion-dollar Hollywood franchise, including Tom Cruise, would ever elevate a black actress to the rough equivalent of M in the James Bond universe….and then have her turn out to be a villain?

My guess was not. I’ll let you watch the movie to find out if I was right or wrong, and add that it’s just possible Black America, having endured being always the villain, always the sidekick, always the comic relief, have now entered a period where they must carry the added burden of presumed heroism–without having necessarily shed those other stereotypes.

I don’t actually count this progress. But your tastes may vary.

Meanwhile, have fun. Just try to catch the matinee or wait for it to arrive in your neighborhood’s cheap, second run theater. I made the mistake of going on the opening weekend during prime time. If I told you how much I paid I’d have to shoot myself in the head. Else put on one of those MI masks so no one could ever recognize me.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (At the Multiplex: April, 2018)

Chappaquiddick (2017)
D. John Curran

It’s almost fair to ask whether Hollywood is growing a pair or merely pulling a face.

A few months back, they took on the CIA. Now–a mere eight years after he died and barely less than half-a-century after the event that made him famous for something besides being Jack and Bobby’s brother–the burning issue of Ted Kennedy’s behavior in the incident that got a small island in a toney part of Massachusetts its own Wikipedia page and a pass on spell check has been turned into a more-than-reasonably honest look at what, these days, we call the Swamp, or the Deep State.

Aka: The American Political System.

About time.

Of course, it’s  a lot safer to take these things on at a distance. We’re now decades into the Frozen Silence for which the lives of wretched men like Barry Seal and Ted Kennedy did so much to grease the skids.

But I hold this truth to be self-evident: It’s better than nothing.

The first thing to note about Chappaquiddick is that, even now, nobody was so bold as to cast a movie star in the lead or any other part. Hey, for Jackie, we can get Natalie Portman.

For Barry Seal–Barry Freakin’ Seal!–we can get Tom Freakin’ Cruise.

For Ted’s little adventure?

Will Ed Helms do?

Yes, he’ll do. Nicely in fact. At least in the period depicted–the car crash that killed campaign volunteer Mary Jo Kopechne and the pertinent events just before and after–Ted Kennedy was a kind of anonymous blob. Whatever one thought about his doomed older brothers, there was no denying they had the charisma to create a disturbance in the force of history. Following, as he did, their combustible mix of war heroism (Joe and Jack), presidential ambition (Joe, Jack and Bobby) all around ball busting (Bobby), and representation of lost dreams (Jack and Bobby), it would have taken a far stronger person than Ted Kennedy (or likely you or me) to stand on his own two feet, let alone rise above the circumstances.

For capturing that forlorn quality, Ed Helms’ performance could hardly be beat. Whatever star quality the youngest Kennedy brother had was reflected glory. Nothing manifests that so completely as a good actor who doesn’t quite have “it” himself.

The question worth asking about such a figure, in fiction or fact, is whether things might have been different.

Of course, the easy way out is an alternative universe where Jack and/or Bobby, or even the Hitler-loving Joe Jr., lived long enough to take the heat off him. In that case, his being a drunken lech who made enough friends in the Senate to get his name on some important legislation (most of it “bipartisan” and therefore pro forma back-slapped and approved by the Swamp he came so swiftly and fully to exemplify–the same Swamp Jack had threatened to destroy and Bobby had at least threatened to expose).

That not being available the movie digs into what’s left. You know: History. Facts. That sort of thing.

As Helms plays him, the bonhomme the youngest Kennedy brother developed over time–so obviously fake his closest friends probably never knew whether to laugh or vomit–is, at best, a nascent, still-developing quality, one of many the man who ran his car off a bridge and left its other occupant to suffocate and drown would develop in order to live with himself, keep besotted voters sending him back to the Senate, term after term, and, most crucially in the context of the movie, maintain himself as a viable “last chance” for the Kennedys to have a true political dynasty of their own instead of serving as a role model for various Bushes and Clintons.

These days, we know how it all worked out. But, as Helms plays him, the Ted Kennedy of this movie, the one reeling out of the water and leaving the crucial minutes when Kopechne gasped out the last twenty minutes of her life a black hole, doesn’t quite know.

Mind you, he has his suspicions.

He can feel it–his being doomed to life as the second-rater he suspected he was anyway.

He can feel all of it, every variation: The relief of having both blown his chance and removed his burden. The shame of having shown himself–the brother of war heroes–a craven coward in every respect imaginable. The wonder at realizing he might–just might–get out of this unscathed. The high that comes from being able to throw his weight around (isn’t this sort of thing what a family name and a seven-figure bank account are for after all?) and the confidence that begins to reassert itself when that weight falls just so–and on everyone from the local cops to the national press–as to drag the hopes and dreams he’s neither man enough to fulfill or strong enough to forget back onto the table. And, finally, the realization that his father (as played by Bruce Dern, easily the biggest name in the cast, a Joe Kennedy Sr. paralyzed by a stroke, barely able to croak a word and corrosive evil personified) considers him a mental midget who must be led by the hand and never let out of anyone’s sight.

Helms gets all of that and the script is sharp enough–both as entertainment and insight into the culture of sycophancy as it exists when the real demi-gods are no longer around to suck up to–that it would probably carry a lesser performance anyway.

Helms and Dern stand out, then. But everything else is plenty good enough to make you wish someone had possessed the guts to make this movie in 1977, right after All the President’s Men. With movie stars. Post mortems this honest are useful and good from any distance. But, at such a late date, even this fine movie is small justice for Mary Jo Kopechne–and even smaller for the nation that the kind of men who hover over Ted Kennedy’s shoulder have spent the intervening decades running off the rails, hiding in such plain view that only now can Hollywood, brave Hollywood, acknowledge their existence.

FINALLY, THE CIA GETS THE MOVIE IT SO RICHLY DESERVES (At the Multiplex: October, 2017)

American Made (2017)
D. Doug Liman

Based on a true lie

Well damn. It’s about time.

I don’t see them all, but, as far as I know, the last great movie about the CIA was The In-Laws, all the way back in 1979.And it was all made up.

This one’s about half made up, which is about as close to the facts as any dose of the CIA’s version of reality should ever be. Any closer, and it’s just a documentary, ready to be turned over to Ken Burns and produced on the public dime, like all the rest of the CIA’s activities, Viet Nam war included.

American Made was bound to be advertised as a Tom Cruise vehicle once Cruise was cast as Barry Seal, the Agency’s smuggler of choice for drugs, guns and Freedom Fighters back in the post-Vietnam, pre-Iran-Contra Go-Go phase of the Cold War. I grinned when I first heard about Cruise being cast. No matter the advertising, it’s very rare that I see a new movie coming and say “Well, I’m not missing that one.” And, despite our boy making no particular attempt to physically resemble Seal (who often checked in around 300 pounds), it’s every bit the inspired casting I hoped for.

The same people who complain about this or that historical detail being completely misrepresented in your favorite movie about Wyatt Earp or Jesse James are complaining about the same kind of things here.

My best advice is to ignore them.

Most of what we know about Barry Seal is what the CIA tells us anyway. Anybody who ever saw the In-Laws knows what that’s worth.

Suffice it to say he was a shady character and Cruise gets at the important thing, which is his motivation.

Yeah, American Made‘s Barry Seal has got some patriotic leanings and God knows he’s greedy.

But that’s not what makes him tick.

What makes him tick is a quality almost no movie ever gets right, even when it’s the very subject (as it is here, if only subterraneously). Before and after he was everything else–in life or film–Barry Seal was a primo example of a good, old American Type: the Danger Jockey.

No man who did what he did–in life or film–has ever been really high on anything but Risk.

And no man who did what he did has ever been cured of his peculiar addiction by anything but his Fate.

In Barry Seal’s case, that meant being cut down by Medillin Cartel assassins while reporting to a court-ordered work furlough at a handy Salvation Army depot in his home town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at a moment when, by rights, he should have been in either a Federal Prison or the Witness Protection Program.

American Made stays in touch with the facts just enough to lay out a prima facie case–fictional but convincing–of just why and how all that was made inevitable. The biggest laugh in the theater came on the line “Governor Clinton is on the phone,” which comes just after Cruise’s Seal has assured the representatives of the umpteen law enforcement agencies who are gathered round a D.A.’s desk to determine which one of them is going to bury him under an Arkansas jail that he’s going to walk out of there.

Second biggest laugh?

When he walks out of there.

The film is skillful enough to have let us know by then what he already knows, which is that he is jumping from a frying pan to a fire–and the all-consuming flames will forever await him, no matter how fast he dances.

It’s also playful enough to get those laughs, all along the way.

Liman’s a plenty good director (Go, the first Bourne film, Edge of Tomorrow, Fair Game), but that last is a trick only Tom Cruise could do so well. He has made it look so easy so many times that he’s also made it easy to fool yourself into thinking he’s not acting, the same way Cary Grant and John Wayne weren’t supposed to be acting. But he’s made up his own iconography, without  the help they had from either Hollywood or the Culture (neither of which was any longer offering assistance in this regard by the time Cruise played his first iconic role in Risky Business). That’s not a small thing and he’s never put it to better use than here, where he’s all there is and all there needs to be. (The film’s one big mistake is sticking him with a devoted wife for whom he would do just about anything except give up being a Danger Jockey–it would be a mistake even if it were factual, which it ain’t. If there ever was such a Danger Jockey, it sure as hell wasn’t Barry Seal, and having the devoted wife be a confused, foul-mouthed, hypocritical Hollywood Southern sugarcake, who we’re supposed to love and admire anyway, doesn’t lessen the mistake).

In a world where the detritus of America’s classic transformation from Nation to Empire rolls daily by (just today, we decided that desertion would no longer be treated as a crime worthy of punishment by the American Military, a level of disdain for reason and tradition even Barry Seal might have blanched at if he could have stopped laughing long enough) American Made is just another two hours of entertainment. But when the court chroniclers of our long-promised future Golden Age come to write the last great score against our name, and ask themselves how and why it all went south so far, so fast, they could do worse than take a close, hard look at this great Tom Cruise vehicle, which already says to anyone paying attention:

Ah hah!

 

MY FAVORITE “ANYTIME” MOVIES….BY DECADE (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Some time in the distant past when I used to listen to sports talk radio (and boy is that time getting to be distant), I heard a segment where a bunch of junior noncoms in the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade opined about movies they could literally sit down and watch anytime.

The DBCCB being what it is, Die Hard came up a lot.

Nothing against Die Hard, which I like, but I always thought I could do better ….so, being, as they say, snobby but not runny snobby:

The Thirties:

Carefree (1939, D. Mark Sandrich)

As many have noted, more a screwball comedy than a musical. As not enough have noted, a first class screwball comedy. And while it may not be a musical, strictly speaking, it does have Ginger doing “The Yam,” my favorite five minutes of film. My second favorite five minutes is Ginger, hypnotized, running loose with a shotgun, muttering “Shoot him down like a dirty dog!” while Luella Gear explains to Jack Carson that  “It’s probably one of the silly rules.”

The Forties:

Colorado Territory (1949, D. Raoul Walsh)

Walsh’s superior remake of his own High Sierra, the movie that made Humphrey Bogart a star. It’s easier to have sympathy for a western outlaw than a modern sociopath (even if the sociopath has had the rough edges smoothed away for the box office). Joel McCrea’s at his very best as a man looking for a second chance in the same wrong place he lost the first one, and VIrginia Mayo makes for one fetching half-breed. Plus it’s a heist flick, always a plus in my book.

The Fifties:

Rear Window (1954, D. Alfred Hitchcock)

Top drawer Hitchcock of course. It’s not so much remembered now, but this sat in the vaults for decades before being restored and re-released to theaters in the eighties. I took my mom to see it and, every time Grace Kelly came on the screen she would murmur, “Isn’t she so-o-o-o-o-o beautiful!” I could hardly disagree, but I thought I would go back a week or two later and watch it by myself, just to see what it was like without the sound effects. Met a girl from work in the lobby and, since we were both there by ourselves, it would have been rude not to sit together. First time Grace Kelly came on the screen: “Isn’t she so-o-o–o-o beautiful!” Interestingly enough, we spent the time before the movie mostly talking about a girl in our office who actually was the only woman I’ve ever known who was as beautiful as Grace Kelly in Rear Window, and had just quit to move back to Orlando. I found out a year or so later that she had wanted to date me, in part because I was the kind of guy who took his mother to the movies….Oh, wait. You thought I was gonna talk about the movie? Come on. You know about the movie. Hitchcock’s serious side and his comic side, perfectly married. That’s the movie.

The Sixties:

El Dorado (1967, D. Howard Hawks)

This is probably my all-time “anytime” movie. It’s a not-that-loose remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo, which everybody, including me, knows is “superior.” But there’s nothing in Rio Bravo I’d trade for the hour in the middle when John Wayne and Robert Mitchum are just a couple of roughnecks trying to keep law and order in a cowtown while Wayne keeps seizing up from the effects of a bullet in his back and Mitchum–with so little polish on him you can smell the whiskey, if not the vomit–is trying to dry out in time to dodge the next bullet. And if that’s not entertaining enough, I can always sit and ponder the mysteries of a universe where Michele Carey could smoke that many holes in the screen and fail to become a star.

The Seventies:

The Rockford Files: Season Four, Episode 8, “Irving the Explainer” (1977, D. James Coburn)

Not a movie. Okay, but there’s enough plot for three movies and it never gets resolved or leaves you wishing it would. People ask me what my favorite television series is and I say The Rockford Files. People ask me what my second favorite television series is and I say “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”  Pick to click:  “Let me get this straight: You have a client who has the same name as Herman Goering’s house?”

The Eighties:

Midnight Run (1988, D. Martin Brest)

Way funnier than Die Hard, and the action sequences are no sillier. I’m not sold on Robert De Niro’s serious mode. (The whole Brando school leaves me…bemused.) But there’s never been a better comic actor. Not even Cary Grant. Matched here by the entire cast, including Charles Grodin, who I can usually take only in the smallest doses.

The Nineties:

Wag the Dog (1997, D. Barry Levinson)

Preston Sturges for the Age of the Security State and a road movie to boot. We forget. That’s the only explanation for a world where this movie exists and you still have people running around crediting the CIA–or, better yet, “the intelligence community”–as a reliable source. Comic genius from Dustin Hoffman, the aforementioned Mr. De Niro and Anne Heche, as the Girl Friday from both Heaven (oh, the efficiency) and Hell (she doesn’t care the job or the master, she just wants to serve someone and, buddy, you better be it).

The Current Millenia:

I know we are in the second decade of the new millennia, but it hasn’t been the sort of millennia that produces a lot of things worth revisiting. Forget two, I’m surprised there’s one.

Knight and Day (2010 D. James Mangold)

That’s the whole movie right there. Two people who are amazed by each other. One’s a superspy and the other likes to work on cars. Guess which is which? This is almost enough to make me forgive James Mangold for his wretched remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Almost.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December, 2016 Edition)

As before, in reverse order, excluding Manchester By the Sea, which I wrote about here (17 days, 10 movies):

(NOTE: As before, “Umpteenth Viewing” means I’ve seen it more than five or six times and don’t feel like counting up exactly how many.)

December 11–From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it came to the multiplex and I hadn’t seen it on the big screen since the eighties. And because it still packs a punch no matter the screen size. Strong hints of the stretched-beyond-reason formalism that would mark the rest of Zinnemann’s career are already present. The movie has a de-lib-er-ate pace. It’s as if Zinnemann, an Austrian Jew who left Europe well before the rise of the Nazis and lost both his parents in the Holocaust, wanted to spend the rest of his career arresting time. No modern audience, bereft of memory, would sit still for it.

December 15–Valkyrie (2008, Bryan Singer, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the thrill of it. When I saw this in the theater, nobody in a packed house twitched. That’s despite the fact that at least some, like me, must have known the ending, since it’s a film which takes few liberties with the last known plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. I never tire of it. Perhaps because the real life event it depicts has that thing writers of fiction often spend entire lives searching for: the Perfect Plot. Singer made a decision to strip that Plot to its bare, pulp thriller bones and it moves. Going by in the background–and sinking in more with each repeated visit–is a depiction of a fully functioning police state which has rarely been bettered. And, finally, for Tom Cruise’s Claus von Stauffenberg saying “No one will be spared” to a man whose execution date is printed across the final frame.

December 17–How to Steal a Million (1966, William Wyler, Umpteenth Viewing)

For those faces and who wouldn’t? Oh sure, it’s a lovely comedy caper about stealing that statue (and who wouldn’t?), which belongs to the face on the right. And, as she puts it so eloquently, “You don’t think I would steal something that didn’t belong to me?” But I’d watch those faces doing piano recitals or planting petunias. Who wouldn’t?

December 18–Fun With Dick and Jane (1977, Ted Kotcheff, Second Viewing)

Because I hadn’t seen it in a while and wanted to give it another shot. It’s still pretty good. It’s still not better than pretty good. It moves along okay and has some fun moments. Best bits are still when Jane’s “Jane” goes all feminist though–never stronger than in her two piece by the pool. That and trying to guess which Jane is striving to communicate with us across time and space.

December 19–In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray, Fourth Viewing)

To commend whatever higher power assured that the King and Queen of noir, Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, made at least one film together, and that a director of Ray’s quality (he was then Grahame’s husband, though they were separated during the filming) was on hand to watch over things. It’s one of the few truly destabilizing films. There are no tricks–no surrealism, no funky dream sequences, no smoke dissolves, not even envelope-pushing sex or violence. The title is earned: by dialogue, performance, mood, setting, jagged rhythms. There’s interesting commentary in the new Criterion package which suggests both Bogart and Grahame were playing the screen characters closest to their real selves. Bogart’s real self would be dead in a few years. Grahame’s would end up sleeping with Ray’s son by another marriage when he was thirteen and marrying him when he was of age. None of that is in the plot here. All of it is in the air There’s a reason I’ve only seen it four times despite it being one of the ten best films I’ve seen once.

December 19–Three Days of the Condor (1975, Sidney Pollack, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because who doesn’t want to relive 1975? Of course, everything 1975 dreaded, which this film does a fine job of conveying, has long since come and gone. Everything except one thing: the persistent metastasizing of the Security State. The movie slows down a bit too much in the middle but the beginning and end couldn’t be better, or more prescient.

December 23–Man of the West (1958, Anthony Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Anthony Mann’s last great western and Gary Cooper’s last great performance. And for a thousand grace notes along the way, with Arthur O’Connell’s ability to wring tragedy from the fate of a cowardly fool touching me deepest this time around. Oh, and nobody could stage shootouts like Mann. Nor could anyone so deeply personalize violence….and never more deeply than here, where the set up is comic and the payoffs so indelibly brutal that the comedy goes clean out of my head and finds me utterly unprepared for it the next time around. Which might be why the have-done-with-it courage of Julie London’s rape victim (first spiritually, then physically, and it’s hard to say which is worse) never quite struck all the way home before.

December 25–Tiger Bay (1959, J. Lee Thompson, Umpteenth Viewing)

For one of the great thrillers; for the lively presence of working class, dockside Wales just before it was swept under by the tides of History; for the decency of John Mills “being himself” subverting what could have been a Javert-like role; for all sorts of other good reasons. But, of course, mostly for the startling, unprecedented, presence of twelve-year-old Hayley Mills, subsequently unrivaled, even by her. That presence is force multiplied by the film’s real plot–and real tragedy–which is a love story between star-crossed outsiders, separated not so much by the circumstance of a murder one of them has committed, but by a stitch in time that has left them man and girl instead of man and woman or even man and teenager. Perhaps Gloria Grahame would have known what to do. Horst Bucholz’s Bronislav Korchinsky does not. It is perhaps not coincidence that his best English-language work occurs here, opposite the only actress who could have loosened him up.

December 26–Eye of the Needle (1981, Richard Marquand, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the finely etched performances by Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan. Ken Follett’s good source novel made the forgivable mistake of portraying “The Needle”–a German super spy who has obtained knowledge certain of the Normandy invasion and is the only source an increasingly paranoid Hitler (see Valkyrie) trusts to give it to him straight–as a simple sociopath. More by the quality of his performance than anything obvious in the script, Sutherland conveys a man caught by a pang of conscience which cannot quite override his loyalty to a country he has not seen for years and must half-suspect he would no longer recognize. That allows Nelligan to become unhinged not so much by the presence of a monster, but the presence of this particular monster, who, only a minute before, seemed so much like a man she had dreamed into existence. That would frighten any woman into begging, “Stop. Please stop!” as she hunts him through the final scenes of one of the great modern thrillers. Marquand soon after got hung up in the universes of Star Wars and Bob Dylan and, coincidentally or not, died an early death. Who knows whether he had great things in him or this was just one of those lucky one-offs. I’ll continue to savor it, either way.

December 27–The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang, Umpteenth Viewing)

Forget Lee Marvin and Glenn Ford. This is the one where Gloria Grahame had chemistry with the carpet, not to mention the coffee pot. She looks like she could have sex with the air just by walking through it and leave the air begging for more. My favorite Lang and Lang is one of my Top Five directors. I have no idea why I can watch this truly disturbing movie over and over. I’m sure it does not speak well of me. But the way she says “And I did it!”  once the air and the coffee pots don’t want to have anything to do with her anymore is probably some sort of…influence.

Happy New Year!

MARKING TIME (Monthly Book Report: 2/16)

The Affair (Lee Child, 2011)

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I kind of liked the Tom Cruise movie based on Child’s Jack Reacher character and I saw a couple of the books cheap in a thrift store so I decided to give the series a go. This is the sixteenth entry (the series began in 1997), but, serendipitously, it’s told in flashback, so the action takes place a few months before the action of the series’ first novel. In other words, I wasn’t as far out of the loop as I might have been.

Good pulp always has it’s finger on the pulse of the future and Child has apparently decided that the only way ahead is to trust in our superheroes, who, along with the usual manly virtues, must combine the qualities of Superman, Super-Sleuth and Sociopath in about equal measure.

In other words, we’re doomed.

Skillfully done (laying aside the usual caveats about a book set in the south by a writer who doesn’t have much feel for the region), but I can’t help wondering if Child actually knows how creepy his hero is.

Maybe if I read further….

(NOTE: Child is a professed admirer of John MacDonald’s Travis McGee series and comparing the two can make you appreciate just how hard it is to bring a touch of something more than craft to such endeavors.)

Personal (Lee Child, 2014)

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Verdict’s in:

We’re still doomed.

Child still doesn’t know how creepy his hero is.

Those matters being respectively obvious and unresolved, all that’s left is the plot, which is meh. Up a notch for no sex therapy.

The Dreadful Lemon Sky (John D. MacDonald, 1974)

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After Child, a return to the McGee was refreshing, though this is just above middling.

The jabs at the march of profit-driven history flow sharp and terse: “I found a shopping center and found that they had left some giant oaks in the parking lot. This runs counter to the sworn oath of all shopping center developers. One must never deprive thy project of even one parking slot.”

There’s more than that of usual, but I confess I still admire McGee in action to McGee contemplating his navel. Unfortunately the balance favors the latter here, at least until the very end, when death is all around and leaves a genuine pall.

And the character sketches are among the sharpest in the entire series, including an eerily perfect template for Bill Clinton, if Bill Clinton had never made it out of Arkansas…or Florida.