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.

WE ALL GOTTA BE BORN SOME TIME, SOMEWHERE, IN SOME COUNTRY OR OTHER….(Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #116)

I normally don’t think much about Easy Rider. I saw the movie somewhere along the way and my general reaction was “I guess you had to be there.”

Then I ran across Ileana Douglas’ top ten movies at the Criterion Collection website (which you can view here), which led me to her twitter page, which led me to her podcasts, which you can sample here–highly recommended, just be sure you have some time on your hands because it’s kind of addicting.)

But one quote from her comments on the first time she saw Easy Rider stuck out.

…let me tell you, the first time I saw it on TV, all cut up, I thought: This is the movie that ruined our lives and turned us into dirty hippies? I just didn’t get it.

By “our’ and “us” she meant her own family, especially her father, who took the movie for a road map on how to live the rest of his life, an obsession that was bound to have an effect on his then five-year-old daughter.

Her father, as it happened, was the son of a famous Hollywood actor who called himself Melvyn Douglas (the family name was Hesselberg). Douglas herself, chose her grandfather’s profession and adopted his surname. And eventually she came to terms with both her “dirty hippy” upbringing and Easy Rider. Hence its inclusion in her Top Ten Criterion films (which I recommend reading in full–on top of her abundantly self-evident charms, she’s an excellent writer).

I’ll probably watch Easy Rider again at some point. Movies sometimes grow with repeated viewings. And no movie can be entirely without existential interest if the main characters are based on Roger McGuinn and David Crosby.

And I’ll keep Ms. Douglas’ reassessment in mind.

But I’m pretty sure one thing will stick in my craw. That’s the ending, which imagines the Modern Southern Redneck, not as the natural ally of hippie culture that he was (I’m speaking as someone who grew up around as many rednecks as Ileana did hippies), but as an extension of the Klan, come out from under the sheets and gone hunting hippies.

One can never say something-or-other didn’t happen to somebody-or-other somewhere-or-other some-time-or-other.

Maybe somewhere, sometime, some hillbilly killed a hippy for the frivolous reasons presented in Easy Rider (frivolous as in “I just don’t like them sons-a-bitches. Let’s shoot ’em!”)

For a better look at the real flavor of backwoods’ paranoia, I’d recommend Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, which came out in the early eighties (and seemed to take something out of Hill, who was never quite the same again).

But you can get the gist from the music that defined the relationship between the hillbillies and the hippies–Charlie Daniel’s “Long-Haired Country Boy,” Hank Williams Jr.’s truly paranoid “Country Boy Can Survive,” and especially Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” which circles back to Viet Nam, catches up the whole story and brings it to its natural conclusion.

The message from the hardcore hillbilly has been the same going all the way back to the Scottish highlands.

Best leave me the hell alone.

In this respect, at least, Easy Rider took the easy way out.

Just like the rest of the country.

Left us with the movie–and the world–that defined my childhood…Which was much tougher, much funnier, didn’t tell a single lie, and didn’t have the answers either.

May have to write about that some day.

Meanwhile, I’ll just keep in touch with that other world I didn’t quite grow up in, in the usual way. By listening…

 

TEN FILMS YOU MIGHT WANT TO WATCH (OR REWATCH) BETWEEN NOW AND NOVEMBER…

(Well, I said I might be in a list-making mood. So, as the long, hot summer hits its stride, I introduce a new category I created because I couldn’t fit this post into any of my existing ones. Having stretched my brain to its limits, I’m calling it….Lists.)

High Noon (1952)
Director: Fred Zinneman

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A supposed Cold War metaphor that could be claimed by either side, according to virtue-seeking whim. But it’s deeper than that, almost pre-civilizational, and the thematic structure is as spare and unforgiving as the famous “real time”  trick of the plot.

“You’re a judge,” Gary Cooper’s Will Kane says to the first person who decides to run instead of fight, when it becomes known that a vengeful outlaw’s gang is now waiting for him at the station on the edge of town, where he’ll arrive on the noon train.

“I’ve been a judge many times in many towns,” is the sensible, world-weary reply. “I hope to live to be a judge again.”

Last I looked, his shades are splitting time between the Supreme Court and the Council of Ministers. They’re all wearing different names and faces, of course, while every Leader of the Free World pretends this is his favorite movie.

A good, swift reminder that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for enough good men to choose survival over honor…or let things come to such a pass that the only choices are laying down and dying or throwing up in your mouth.

The Last Hurrah (1958)
Director: John Ford

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High-middling by Ford’s standards, which means it still goes places worth going. Perhaps the first film to suggest that our politics had got beyond satirizing, a suggestion we’ve spent the years since proving beyond a shadow of a doubt. I thought it was a touch over the top the first time I saw it. Then, upon revisiting, I realized how much Frank Skeffington’s opponents reminded me of the Bush family, who had, in fact, emerged from this very Bostonian milieu.

Seen in one light, the film can be comforting: It’s all been round before.

Seen in another, it can send an entirely different message: We’re doomed.

Either way, the final scene is Spencer Tracy’s finest hour.

That Hamilton Woman (1941)
Director: Alexander Korda

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What? You mean England and “Europe” weren’t always chums? You mean England and America weren’t always chums? What gives?

This film, about England at high tide (and yes, about Horatio Nelson and his famous mistress, too), is a good reminder of how hard it is to have chums–or challenge social convention–when you’re intent on ruling an empire where, as some quipster once had it, “the sun never sets and the blood never dries.” That’s something Americans have been forced to learn a thing or two about in the world we’ve made since.

From Gone With the Wind onward, Vivien Leigh was always some measure of great, and never greater than here, which may be the role she was born to play. The final scene is all hers and a killer. But it’s not more poignant than the moment, mid-film, when Leigh’s Emma Hamilton sees Laurence Olivier’s Nelson, returning from his “triumphs,” emerging from the shadows a broken man only she can redeem.

Winston Churchill’s favorite movie, back when it was still possible to believe “there will always be an England” meant there would always be something more than a plot of ground with the name attached.

La Marseillaise (1938)
Director: Jean Renoir

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Renoir and Ford were two sides of a coin. Ford’s specialty was weaving the life-size concerns of ordinary people into the tangled fabric of larger-than life-historical tapestries. Renoir, being a “man of the Left”–and the thirties’ Left at that–was practically obligated to have a go at the same.

It was his bad luck to be utterly bad at it–every bit as bad as Ford was at portraying the New World’s moneyed aristocracy. In his greatest films (here, The Rules of the Game, The Grand Illusion) the representations of the proles, whether earnest or earthy (the default positions for any intellectual purporting to celebrate the Common Man), were always woodenly conceived and executed.

Our good luck is that this ended up being a minor problem. Whatever Renoir’s politics, he knew his own strengths (the same might be said of Ford, whose politics were much more complicated, though, not, I believe, the complete mystery some have made of them). Beyond society itself, the great, sensitive portraits in his films–the ones he and his actors lavished real care on–were of the aristocracy, the nobility, the landed classes, and, here, the King, Louis XVI (pictured above, among his legions, as played by Renoir’s brother, Pierre).

One of the many reasons Renoir is so revered today is that he saw the collapse of France coming. Deep down, he must have known what that collapse meant: In essence, that, despite its long arc, the French Revolution had failed, with reverberations that will be felt until France is no more.

That was worth noting on the eve of WWII. If this political year somehow ends up marking another break with the past, it will be worth remembering in the Age to come.

War and Peace (1966)
Director: Sergey Bondarchuk

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What? You mean Russia and “Europe” have never been chums? Ever?

Of course no film can match the pure narrative depth and scope of Tolstoy’s mind-blowing novel, but this effort from the high tide of the Soviet Union’s crudely failed attempt to do what the super-sophisticated European Union is about to fail at as well, comes as close as anything can.

King Vidor’s 1956 Hollywood version has much to recommend it. Audrey Hepburn was a fine Natasha, Anita Ekberg a definitive Helene, Herbert Lom a Napoleon capable of making you feel for the man without quite forgiving him. The retreat from Moscow will never be done better. I’ve watched it a dozen times, but never without realizing that nothing can overcome whatever hallucination led someone to think Henry Fonda, great as he was, could make even a serviceable Pierre.

That’s well taken care of here, by Bondarchuk himself. He seems to be channeling Jean Renoir’s director/actor turn in The Rules of the Game, which was itself probably modeled on Tolstoy’s Pierre. Better than that, Bondarchuk found the definitive Natasha in Lyudmila Savaleya (Hepburn was great, but there’s an insurmountable advantage in being Russian when you’re playing the consummate Russian heroine).

The other big advantage in making a state-sponsored national epic? No time restraints. This runs north of seven hours, so you’ll either get lost or get bored (just like with the novel). But, just like the novel, if you stick with it, the rewards are enormous. And it’s worth remembering that Tolsoy’s various Russias–the one he lived in even more so than the one he remembered and imagined–were not far from collapse either.

Robin Hood (1991)
Director: John Irvin

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Talk about pre-civilizational. This deceptively modest rendering of the legend got swamped by the flashy Kevin Costner version that came out at the same time. Being ten times as good doesn’t always help.

Uma Thurman makes an odd, though not entirely ineffective, Maid Marion. (The role has been surprisingly hard to cast. Even Olivia De Havilland wasn’t quite right for it, she was just so luminous in Technicolor it didn’t matter. The definitive Marion was Glynis Johns, who, under the name of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor, in a story set at his court, played the type to sublime perfection in Disney’s The Sword and the Rose. She somehow missed getting the part under the right name, in the right setting, when, with much of the same cast and crew, the studio made its own excellent version of the Robin Hood story a year earlier. Sometimes, the gears of the Cosmos slip just that little tantalizing bit, leaving us with insoluble mysteries.) And, for some reason, Nottingham has been split into two men, one a touch sympathetic, the other nasty-to-the-bone, neither named Nottingham.

But forget all that. It’s glorious.

We’re spared the return of good King Richard (or much reference to him at all, though Edward Fox has a fine cameo as a querulous Prince John), and spun straight back into tribalist politics, twisting Norman round Saxon and vice versa. Bergin’s Robin isn’t standing for the rights of Englishman as much as his own pride. Unlike any other version I’ve seen, his self-knowledge isn’t complete from the get-go–he doesn’t know who he is until events force him to accept that, if he doesn’t bring an end to the misery, no one will.

And If “justice” results?

So be it!

The Long Good Friday (1980)
Director: John Mackenzie

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Meet Harold and his Maid Marion, Victoria. No last names. He’s a man of the people, straight up from the streets. She’s either slumming upper class, or playing at posh, up from the same streets. Hard to tell.

Together, they rule the London underworld, with their sights set on moving.up. Today London, tomorrow the world.

Then a bomb blows up in a car and their world starts spinning. By the time it stops, they’ve done Shakespearean melodrama (nobody has a last name) and the good old gangster film proud.

This was Bob Hoskins’ breakout film. I don’t know who won the lead Oscars for 1980 without looking it up, but, trust me, whoever they were, he and Helen Mirren wasted them.

All those are plenty good reasons to watch this any old time, but the lesson for the long, hot summer coming is just this: It can always be worse.

The Long Riders (1980)
Director: Walter Hill

THE LONG RIDERS, front from left: Amy Stryker, James keach as Jesse James, Savannah Smith, Stacy Keach as Frank James, Fran Ryan, 1980, © United Artists

The most nuanced and effective look at the American Robin Hood, Jesse James, brought too close to get off lightly under the guise of romantic legend. You want tribalist politics? Try Savannah Smith’s Zee James (Jesse’s wife) giving a deathly quiet reading of a line so primordial you can miss it’s import if you aren’t paying strict attention.

“You gonna make ’em pay Jesse?”

That’s after the Pinkertons, trying to stand for justice just this once, accidentally (or, perhaps, “accidentally”) have killed Jesse’s little brother with a firebomb.

You gonna make ’em pay Jesse?

On earth, in every Age of Disintegration, that is all ye know, and all ye need know.

(Best scene: A brutal frontier barroom knife fight between David Carradine’s Cole Younger and James Remar’s Sam Starr, the half-breed husband from whom the woman born Myra Maybelle Shirley, played wonderfully here by Pamela Reed, took the famous form of her name).

(Second best scene: Zee James and two other women daring the Pinkertons to shoot them on their porch.)

(Not quite fatal flaw: The Northfield Raid being drag-g-g-g-g-ed down by copious and pretentious use of the era’s Wild Bunch-style slo-mo.)

A Perfect Murder (1998)
Director: Andrew Davis

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A re-imagining of one of Hitchcock’s classy, entertainments, Dial M For Murder, which it bests by miles. Reduced to plot, it is, like its predecessor, a slick, satisfying, murder-for-hire tale with a twist (look at the picture above and guess who’s going to murder who–look again after you watch the movie).

Michael Douglas is the typecast Wall Street buccaneer, Gwyneth Paltrow the typecast debutante trophy wife with social justice tendencies (she’s a trust fund baby who works for the U.N., and she’s Gwyneth Paltrow, how typecast can you get?), and Viggo Mortensen the typecast low-life.

That’s on the surface.

Underneath, it’s a Death Cage match between a couple of born-to-be Manhattanites (who cares where they really came from), whose abiding concern for the social niceties they’ve mastered in order to run in place is subsumed by the more human emotions: lust, greed and revenge.

Make of that what you will in this election year.

The Conservation (1974)
Francis Ford Coppola

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Just remember. No matter who the president is or will be, they are still listening.

You didn’t think the cost of empire was gonna be nothing did you?

Happy Fourth of July!