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…

ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take 10: That Thing You Do)

That Thing You Do (1996)
d. Tom Hanks

[NOTE: This review if for the theatrical release of That Thing You Do…The director’s cut now available as an extra on some DVD packages is a classic example of more amounting to less.]

Except for a couple of key moments, That Thing You Do, Tom Hanks’ breeezy homage to the garage band ethos of the 1960s, exists entirely on the surface. And that’s fine, because, this time, the surface carries a real story and because great care is taken to present it in all its glory.

My favorite moment on that surface, comes when Steve Zahn’s guitar playing wiseacre and general layabout who can’t get a date, hits on the receptionist at the record company his band, The Wonders, has been signed to, and not only ends up with a date, but a quickie marriage in Vegas to a former Playboy bunny who doesn’t forget to hang on to her cigarette for the wedding photo.

If that doesn’t make you laugh, this movie’s probably not for you.

If this movie is for you, then by the time you reach that scene, you’ve been treated to literally hundreds of sharply observed details of Life in America during its most recent Great Upheaval. For once, the focus is on the lives that the maelstrom was meant to disrupt and discard, rather than the movers and shakers. It’s like an inversion of Baby It’s You (the greatest movie about the Sixties).

There, the future is always present–a permanent, nagging challenge to all the conventions that were about to be cast aside. Here, the future doesn’t matter. Not the nation’s future, or–despite an American Graffiti-style coda (to speak of movies that carry the weight of the future) to catch us up on what happened to everybody–those of the characters themselves.

That’s appropriate, too, because, beyond those under-the-skin moments I mentioned (about which more in a minute), all the characters are on the surface of the surface.

They could be anybody.

And that was the Rock and Roll America genius of the garage-band moment itself. The idea that anybody–literally anybody–might have a great record in them. In Garage Band America, it happened over and over, enough to generate enough entries on the Billboard Hot 100 (which plays a prominent role in threading the plot together in That Thing You Do)  to fill it for at least a week, but cult-like devotion–even to records that didn’t make the chart–that has lasted and grown over half a century and, occasionally, in the manner of all great American passions, reached extremes about equal parts ridiculous and sublime.

If you laughed at the Playboy bunny holding a cigarette while she married the guitar player of the latest national sensation, The Wonders, from Eerie, P-A in Vegas, then this movie’s for you, even if it doesn’t transcend antecedents like Graffiti and (I’m told) The Commitments. It’s a story worth telling from more than one angle, and this telling doesn’t overplay its hand.

It may be so careful in that last respect that it can’t help representing a shallower take than those others. Such accusations have been made and they aren’t without merit.

But it cuts deeper than its main intention on a couple of levels:

One is the reminder (not always kept at the forefront of the Garage Band Narrative, especially when it’s being referenced as a forerunner of something Really Important like Punk) that, in every band who made it, there was at least somebody who wanted to make it–wanted to live something closer to a dream than a reality without forgetting that it’s the people stuck in boring old reality (be it your dad’s appliance shop or the military) who make all dreams possible.

Two: Those key moments I mentioned above, both of which belong to Liv Tyler.

Once, when she’s the first person to hear the band’s song come on the radio for the first time and takes off down the streets of downtown Eerie, P-A, with a fusion of personal and communal joy that is no longer possible and barely imaginable in this land our dreams have made.

And then, near the end, as the joyride comes crashing down and she finally says You stay away from me to the boy whose love she lost to the band’s brief moment of glory because, in The Wonders, he was the one who wanted to make it.

Those are moments any good actress would treasure–what they meant to Liv Tyler, the daughter of people (Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and groupie extraordinaire Bebe Buell), whose lives represented the willful abandonment of the cultural norms so lovingly portrayed here as completely as Trump Tower’s golden toilets define the obscenities of excess, is anybody’s guess.

I hope she’s proud of them. They’re more than enough to keep That Thing You Do from floating away on a sea of nostalgia–and to make it worth watching forever.

MEET THE NEW SPIES, NOT QUITE THE SAME AS THE OLD SPIES (Segue of the Day: 10/23/15)

Homeland: Season 4 and Bridge of Spies (WARNING: Spoilers included)

homeland4

My, how time flies. Seems like only yesterday I was pondering Homeland‘s Season 1 and wondering just how far Claire Danes could take Carrie Mathison and this week I was binge-watching Season 4, which was easily the strongest season since the first. Not that she, or the show, have ever really backed off, as I feared they might. The basic concept, that we’re now in the hands of crazy people with conveniently shifting moral codes (shifting that is, for their own convenience and if that happens to coincide with “national security” aren’t we all lucky!) because who else would ever want to  be part of this game, has remained intact.

But, Damian Lewis’s Nicholas Brody wasn’t exactly the highlight of Season 1 (either as a character or a performance) and he and his family situation became a real drag on Seasons 2 and 3. Frankly I had always believed any chance to look at Morena Baccarin, who played Brody’s long-suffering wife, doing absolutely anything at all was worth whatever one had to go through, but Brody made me seriously question my commitment. That he ended up dying a heroic death while Carrie was pregnant with his baby didn’t exactly set my little patch of woods on fire. Better for Carrie, Danes and the show if she had offed him.

Well that didn’t happen but at least he’s gone and that meant there was a possibility they (character, actress and Homeland) could all get back to pushing the envelope: And that’s exactly what they did.

I’m amazed that some of this show’s fans/critics get concerned with things like the plausibility of some bit of narrative (or just the whole thing) or whether the show is sufficiently sensitive to the Other.

Good lord.

The “narrative” is that this woman is as crazy as a loon. She can’t possibly operate anywhere except deep inside a security state that could care less about its own side as anything but a cocoon to exist within, let alone any Other that might exist for any reason except to give the cocoon a reason to keep on keeping on.

And she will do absolutely anything to stay embedded in the only world that will have her.

Oh sure, they have subplots and all. Carrie having a baby which her sister has to take care of, or her long estranged mom showing up at her dad’s funeral gives everybody a chance to pretend she’s got problems just like the rest of us. But that’s all a crock, just like Brody’s various family problems were in the first three seasons. Carrie’s crazy. That’s what the show’s about.

Oh, and, on the big things, Carrie’s right. I mean, she would be wouldn’t she?

Inside the house of vile mirrors we now call a government, who but a crazy person with the moral compass of a hungry cat could be expected to see anything at all? Every time she doesn’t kill people, even more people die. And when she’s stopped from killing Saul Berenson at mid-season here (in as good as scene as anybody’s ever going to play on television), not only do lots more people die as a result, but Saul himself (still being played by a Mandy Patinkin who keeps pulling off the miracle of being Danes’ equal, as both performer and character, a miracle that will sink the show if it ever stops happening, because it’s clear by now that Danes, who might be the first actor/producer who is applying the Method full bore crazy at both ends, is going to wipe everybody else off the screen if he doesn’t keep popping in every ten minutes) loses a piece of his soul.

Apparently Season 5 is going to be about whether he can buy it back. At least they set it up that way. And at this point, I’m almost convinced they’ll all be brave enough to realize he can’t. That is, they’ll be brave enough to realize nobody can, even if they don’t believe in souls.

bridgeofspies

Which brings be to Bridge of Spies, which. after a long night cozying up to Homeland, I finally caught on a fourth try (many long stories involving missed times, no need to bore you further) and which exemplifies Steven Speilberg’s efforts to hold on to the notion that, if we were sane once, we might be sane again, if we could only remember how to find our way back.

I’m skeptical.

I too, would like to believe that having people of principle in positions of responsibility is still a viable option. But we’ll need to find new definitions for most of the words in that sentence, something like a new language, before we can even hope to grope our way forward out of the new darkness. Finding a way back usually just means going backwards and, if we go backwards from where we are right now–in the world Homeland does such a good job of delineating–we’ll either head straight to Tyranny or make one stop at Chaos along the way.

That said, this is a fine effort. Speilberg’s a romantic of the old school, so it’s always a bit touching to see him operating in a world where he’s now so clearly an anachronism. But he seems to have realized this about himself, and, if he can’t quite excise his tendency to go woozy on occasion, even with a Coen Brothers script helping (whatever their multitude of sins, overt sentimentality isn’t one of them), he at least keeps the vice to a minimum here and creates a genuine nostalgia for Cold War clarity and an old fashioned decency that would have Saul Berenson and Carrie Mathison wondering just what Tom Hanks’ Jim Donovan is really up to.

So, in a way, Bridge of Spies, trapped in a past that’s as far from us as the Old West was from John Ford, and is, unlike Ford’s west, no longer deemed worth remembering and thus dying a quick death at the box office, is simultaneously mired as deeply in the modern malaise as Homeland.

But Claire Danes is the real auteur now. Unless, of course, somewhere deep inside the security state where we can’t see, there’s some real life version of Carrie Mathison running loose at at the back of it all, absolutely convinced she can keep us safe from everyone but herself.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Sometimes, the Western Really Does Go Everywhere)

Captain Phillips (2013) channels 3:10 to Yuma (1957)

(WARNING: Possible spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen either film)

I’m careful about proclaiming just any old American (or Americanized) narrative a “western” (“noir” is the other catchall descriptive that gets around, often after being recognized as a subset, or extension, or consummation, of, well, westerns–these notions, like some who perpetuate them, can get tricky).

However….

In 2007, James Mangold remade 3:10 to Yuma, the classic Glenn Ford/Van Heflin western based on an Elmore Leonard short story and directed by the estimable and too-oft overlooked Delmer Daves. Mangold (a fairly estimable director himself–Walk the Line is first-rate) and his talented cast (Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Peter Fonda, et al) made such a hash of things that it was possible to walk out of the theater thinking westerns can’t really be at the heart of everything when they aren’t even at the heart of westerns anymore.

But then Mangold’s version wasn’t really a remake, or even a re-imagining of either Leonard’s original story or Daves’ film. Whatever the intent, it ended up being a cartoon. And, no, not one of those cartoons which are rooted in westerns.

The real remake arrived in theaters a few weeks ago, disguised as Tom Hanks’ worthy (one might almost say tiresomely worthy) bid for a third Oscar, Captain Phillips.

Oh, I know Captain Phillips is based on a true story. I even have a pretty good sense that, for once, the movie may actually adhere pretty closely to the events it is based upon. But that doesn’t disprove my theory. Life wouldn’t know what to do with itself if it didn’t have art to imitate.

So once more, a decent, hard-working, put-upon family man sets off to accomplish a dangerous mission for the sake of an earnest monetary reward. Once more, he finds himself trapped in a small space, trading wits with a charismatic, psychologically adroit villain. Once more the “villain”–ruthless enough in each case to kill a member of his own criminal enterprise without a second thought*–turns out to have both an honor code and a human side that very much includes a growing soft spot for the good man. In each case, the bad man ends up on the way to prison and the good man goes home to his family. And in each case there is a strong hint that the good man has what the bad man truly wants–call it the emotional security which only home and family can provide.

To be sure there are many differences as well. There’s even a crucial twist on the basic theme–in the bobbing, claustrophobic, nodulized life-boat of Captain Phillips, the bad man has hold of the good man (which means the cavalry, here played a U.S. Navy which is never more safely anonymous and faceless than when one of them is given some screen time–Ford’s Ben Wade would be able to teach them nothing about cold-blooded efficiency) is on the way, while in the shadow-striped, still-as-death hotel room of 3:10 to Yuma, the good man has hold of the bad man, and it’s the bad man’s outlaw band (led by Richard Jaeckel at high tide, so one need not worry about facelessness or anonymity) who are riding to the rescue.

And the differences do tell us something. For instance, in 3:10, Ford and Heflin may be from opposite sides of the law, but they are from the same world. In Captain Phillips, Hanks and the mesmerizing Barkhad Abdi (playing the Somali pirate leader Muse) may as well be from different planets. (Their deepest connection, in fact, comes in the harrowing action sequence when Muse and his little band are taking over Phillips’ ship. It’s the moment when, as skilled commanders of ships in battle, they have the most in common, even if one ship is a tiny but lethal motor boat and the other a massive but vulnerable and unarmed freighter.)

What impressed me, though, is not so much a difference as a yawning chasm: namely, why 3:10 to Yuma is a movie I’ll watch as long as I have eyes and I could miss seeing Captain Phillips a second time without my life feeling in any way diminished. And why I suspect the case would never be the other way around for anybody, though many could dismiss either and many more could simply enjoy both and let it go at that.

Both movies are made with consummate skill and, honestly, that superlative sequence where Abdi’s pirates take over Hanks’ boat–done as well as an action scene can be–has no equivalent whatsoever in 3:10 to Yuma. There’s tension in the western, but not much action. In Captain Phillips the new, post-western narrative model holds sway–there’s action without much tension.

I can’t say the absence of real tension was simply because I knew the ending going in. If anything, 3:10 to Yuma, which I’ve been watching regularly for years, gets more tense every time I see it, because the more I watch it, the more I feel the weight of what’s really at stake. And, believe me, Tom Hanks emotes at the end of Captain Phillips like nobody’s business. You can feel his relief at being rescued gush out of him.

He’s very, very present.

What’s not present is a sense of something bigger than himself. Some moment that offers the equivalent of Van Heflin’s Dan Evans explaining to his wife why he can’t back down from the task of walking Ben Wade to the train station, even though the reason for his taking on the job in the first place–two hundred dollars–has long since become irrelevant.

He can’t back down because, if he did, there would be nothing left inside of him.

In Captain Phillips, Richard Phillips and Muse really are no more than ships in the night. They happened to collide–a point that is too fully realized by the utter inability of anyone but the two leads to make an impression, while Yuma is filled with faces that matter. The solid direction by Paul Greengrass, the fine performance by Hanks and the riveting one by Abdi–none of it can quite mask that fundamental absence of belonging to something that is worth belonging to.

So the events of 3:10 to Yuma’s fictional story change everyone they touch and it’s possible to imagine they would change you if they happened to you.

There’s no sense that the events of Captain Phillips actually change even the real life characters who lived it–that Richard Phillips’ future will be much altered beyond the residual effects of the inevitable book and movie contract or that Muse’s future in an American prison will be much different than the quasi-prison piracy had already put him in. And there’s no sense these events would change you either except that–much like a car accident or any other random event–you’d be happy you survived.

That’s the new triumph of civilization, what the modern non-culture can still give us at the movies and pretty much everywhere else: Survival is the new emptiness and emptiness is the new fulfillment and, heck, we should all be grateful for it.

There’s cool stuff at the multiplex.

Lucky us.

What more could we ask for?

(*NOTE–It was unclear, to me at least, whether Abdi’s Muse actually kills a rival pirate during an early scene in Captain Phillips. Since he cold-cocks him with a heavy metal object, it’s reasonable to assume he was willing to kill him, which makes the point even if he doesn’t go about it anywhere near as cold-bloodedly as Ben Wade does in 3:10 to Yuma.)