It’s done. How can summer be on its way out already? But then, an August that gave us here in Washington an earthquake and a hurricane perhaps deserves to be given the bum’s rush. (And as I write this, it’s almost 80 degrees and sunny in Washington, so maybe it’s not so far gone after all.)
In terms of screening film, it wasn’t the best of times. As I discovered, the availability of Netflix streaming is as much curse as blessing. The Tyranny of Choice, as it were. So many evening were spent casually flitting around its archives, from 80s sitcoms to old Star Trek episodes, to documentaries. That left few hours for cinematic pursuits despite my still-raging romance with my Blu Ray player.
But, we do what we can. And here, again, in summary fashion, is How You Will Know How I Spent This Summer.
Airplane! (1980) dir. by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Game-changers almost never hold up. Their imitators end up ruining the curve for everyone. Even Citizen Kane doesn’t get as much respect as it used to. And just as Tarantino’s blend of pop music, ultra violence and and whipsmart dialogue feels so played out today, so does Airplane’s rat-a-tat, parodic comedic style, its pure commitment to joke over form.
Back at the dawn of the Reagan era, this sort of thing was not the norm. Woody Allen neurotic comedies were the fashion for the discerning, while an undertow of frat-based humor (Animal House, Caddyshack, Blues Brothers) also held sway.
Even Mel Brooks tried to obey some rules of narrative. But Airplane! gleefully trashes them. From the moment the male and female airport “loading zone” announcers get into a lover’s quarrel, you know that this is a film that has no purchase on reality. It virtually created the self-referential universe in which we now find ourselves living daily.
This is a film that turns Lloyd Bridges into a glue-sniffer, gives Peter Graves lines like “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” and turns Kareem Abdul-Jabbar into a sympathetic figure. It puts Maureen McGovern in a nun’s habit, had Barbara Billingsley speak “jive” and launched a new career for Leslie Nielsen.
The jokes don’t hold up nearly as well as they did 30 years ago, but its sheer willingness to go for the laugh in the manner of a good Marx Brothers comedy, remains its hallmark.
The Big Combo (1955) dir. by Joseph H. Lewis
A film noir that features all the classics: the obsessed the detective, the girl who’s taken a wrong turn, the slick antagonist. In this case, it’s the bad guy, Richard Conte, who dominates the picture over a blank Cornel Wilde. Great atmosphere and smoky cinematography. The two-man shoot-out ending was swiped by Heat, among many other films.
As I discovered, the film is likely best known now for featuring a pair of gay henchmen, Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman). Pretty daring stuff for the 50s. The names of the characters were recycled by Jess Whedon for a pair of underworld types in Serenity.
The Big Knife (1955) dir. by Robert Aldrich
An overly pedagogical look at the evils of Hollywood. Written by working-class hero Clifford Odets (see Barton Fink), it feels stagey in every way, from the endless exposition to the film’s lack of dynamic movement. Jack Palance is the Big Star who has sold out his principles for a paycheck, but Every Time He Gets Out They Pull Him Back In. Melodramatic in a very 1950s kind of way, the ending is both completely predictable and a huge cheat.
Chungking Express (1994)
Fallen Angels (1995)
dir. by Wong Kar-Wai
These two films deserve their own entry, but time is short. Wong Kar-Wai’s frenetic, fragmented account of disparate lives intersecting in late 20th century Hong Kong might drive with an aversion to the precious right up the wall, with Faye Wong in Chungking Express playing the original manic pixie dream girl (sorry Kirsten Dunst) always dancing to the same song, or the heartbroken cop (Tony Leung) talking to objects in his apartment.
Fallen Angels, which largely tells the tale of a hit man obsessed with his partner, is even more elliptical—and has less of a heart than Chungking. Both films, bathed in a neon glow of modern, restless Hong Kong, are drop-dead gorgeous.
Chungking, however, has an arresting high-spiritedness and romanticism that allows it transcend its tendency toward whimsy. At the end, it stays with you and becomes a film that you hope to sound revisit.
Deadline USA (1952) dir. by Richard Brooks
For years, this was a mysterious film referenced again and again (over whiskey) by my friend Douglas McCollam. This summer it became obtainable through a DVD-R agent on Amazon, so I could finally see the reason why he paid it so much homage.
Start with the last exchange, “That’s the press, baby” and work backward from there. Humphrey Bogart is a New York newspaper editor dealing with problems not so distant from today. His beloved paper is being put on the market, its editorial voice soon to be silenced. He’s got ex-wife problems, mobster problems.
It triumphs in its unvarnished optimism about the role of the press in a (small d) democratic society, holding those in power and those corrupt accountable. At a time when the media has become fragmented into so many component parts that its very essence risks dilution, this simple tale can become life-affirming.
Snake Plissken. Is there anything really to say, except a condemnation of yours truly for never seeing it until now? If anything, the production values were worse than I even had envisioned. Looks like Carpenter filmed it on three or four blocks in Detroit. (Sorry, Detroit. According to Wikipedia, it was St. Louis.)
But, like James Cameron’s The Terminator, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
As we all know now, 1997 really was a futuristic dystopia. I mean, the Indians lost to the friggin’ Florida Marlins.
Gladiator (2000) dir. by Ridley Scott
Eleven years ago, I was never able to place this film in its proper context (although I clearly recall seeing it at the cinema in downtown Bethesda), but the passing years have made that task easier. It’s an actioner, through and through, with an absolute star-marking performance by Russell Crowe, and at root doesn’t require many brain cells. In that regard, it’s the ultimate Saturday night after the football-game tailgate movie.
But there is more here. In 2000, the United States was, like Rome in antiquity, the unquestioned leader of the world. Soviet Communism had collapsed. Few threats were on the horizon. The economy was roaring. The biggest danger, it appeared, was rot from within.
That was the world of Gladiator, a world in which a fat society contemplated the sins of its leaders and by extension, themselves. Then, of course, the leader was Bill Clinton, in whom personal transgression and global leadership freely co-habitated.
Since that time, that swollen, hegemonic world seems to have teetered on the world of collapse. America has seen two wars, an expanded federal profile, and economic instability since the movie premiered.
If the embedded warning within Gladiator was the threat of ruin, the past decade has served to make it more of a reality in the minds of the many than was ever thought possible back then. It’s the rare instance where what seemed to be a pure, escapist entertainment may have been more of a clarion call than anyone realized.
“There once was a dream that was Rome.” Ridley Scott was talking about America.
(In another post, down the road, we’ll revisit Crowe’s career and whether it has lived up to everything that was suggested. He’s a frustrating actor in that he’s one of the few that on the screen now who remain capable of greatness.)
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) dir. by Joel and Ethan Coen
The Coens again. Inspired by True Grit, I began working back through the catalogue. This has always been an entry that I felt was treated with an undue harshness. But then, back in the early 90s, critics were getting impatient. (They still are, truth be told.) They wanted a Coen masterpiece, an Oscar contender.
After the deep thoughts of Barton Fink and the historical mannerism of Miller’s Crossing, Hudsucker looked like a trifle, despite the towering presence of Paul Newman. (And he really was. And missed even more because of it.)
Those critics would be appeased with Fargo, but Hudsucker was part of a pattern the Coens would repeat. And another shaggy homage to classic film, The Big Lebowski, would be celebrated while this film was relegated to the dustbin. Not right or fair. The neglect might have been due to the influences. In their genetic memory, viewers may still have recalled the noir elements that propelled Fargo and Lebowski, or the immigrant mob stories that underpinned Miller’s Crossing. But counting on America to recall Preston Stuges, Howard Hawks, and Frank Capra? A tougher sell.
Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962) dir. by Sidney W. Pink
This was a very big in Denmark. Or it should have been. Not good sci-fi or classic sci-fi. Or classically bad sci-fi, like Plan 9 From Outer Space. More like a third-season episode of “Star Trek.” And likely not even that. The budget, according again to Wikipedia, was 75 k. I forgot this film the minute I finished it and had to read imdb just to remember the plot.
Night of the Iguana (1964) dir. by John Huston
Not a great film. It grows, in fact, a bit unbearable after awhile. But then I have a problem, obviously, with works adapted from the well-known plays of the time. This was another Tennessee Williams number and is largely endurable because of Richard Burton, born to play a blustery conniver always on the edge of total dissipation, and the always game Ava Gardner. For me, this was a follow to Under the Volcano, another down-and-outer in Mexico directed by Huston.
Iguana seems to go on forever and Sue Lyon (of Lolita fame), playing the sex-starved ingenue, is an anchor around his neck. She’s bad. Madonna bad. She shouldn’t be on the same planet with Burton, or, for that matter, Ava Gardner.
Oldboy (2003) dir. by Chan wook-Park
A haunting, difficult film that offers stunning visual rewards. In a sense, the final plot twist was obvious, but I hadn’t leaped to the conclusion. But then, I don’t enjoy thinking out puzzles in the midst of films. It’s why Inception disappointed me, because it seemed purposefully designed to force to you figure it out while you were watching it, making the action of the film less important than untangling the riddle, if that tangled sentence makes any sense. (See also The Usual Suspects, Momento.)
Spike Lee is directing an American remake, which we all can, as one, dread. This film is about fatalism and self-sacrifice, neither of which are prevalent in this culture.
On the Beach (1959) dir. by Stanley Kramer
But then, speaking of fatalism, this is a pretty despairing tale of a U.S. submarine in Australia after a nuclear holocaust has wiped out the rest of the earth. It’s daring material, the kind of thing that felt all-too-realistic in 1960, and a genre of its own that has largely disappeared, replaced by the virus/zombie trope.
But instead of a Zombie Apocalypse, On the Beach concerns itself with the relationships among a small group of friends and lovers (Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner) trying stoically to confront the End Times. The most memorable sequence involves one sailor who decides to emerge into the radiation-filled skies to live alone in empty San Francisco. There is no panic in the streets, but instead resignation to our self-created fate.
Pickpocket (1959) dir. by Robert Bresson
This is a film about inevitability. My first experience with the films of Robert Bresson, it left with a no doubt intentionally alienated feeling toward the blank-faced protagonist, Michel (Martin LaSalle). Ostensibly the ending is about the redemptive power of love, but since strong emotions rarely surface during the film (indeed Michel does everything he can to keep them at arm’s length), the viewer is left wondering whether Michel is just kidding himself and trying futilely to substitute responsible a object of desire (women) for more forbidden targets.
Run Silent Run Deep (1958) dir. by Robert Wise
I have a weakness for submarine movies. I’ve detailed my affection for The Hunt for Red October elsewhere on this site. And of course, On the Beach is reviewed bove. But this tale of veteran Clark Gable battling up-and-coming officer Burt Lancaster was largely remade step-by-step in Crimson Tide, not that there is anything wrong with that. Will the two headstrong officers ultimately see eye-to-eye and grow to respect each other? I won’t spoil it.
The Social Network (2010) dir. by David Fincher
This film has been worked over to death. I’ll just add that it deserves the praise it earned and belongs in the best tradition of cinema. David Fincher’s refusal to make Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) sympathetic was a courageous, and correct, choice. As Citizen Kane illustrated, success in America rarely comes to those of a better nature or to those who might deserve it. A master class in filmmaking—and screenwriting. These days, all one can ask of a film is to have a third act that carries some elements of surprise.
Source Code (2011) dir. by Duncan Jones
I’m a rank sucker for films that manipulate time, so it’s natural that I would gravitate to this, despite its obvious similarity to the recent (for me, at least) Déjà Vu. The premise, in which an agent returns again and again to the moments directly before the bombing of a train, seems driven more by magic than science—but I suppose so is warp drive. But the science doesn’t much matter when you have Michelle Monaghan, one of my favorite modern actresses and someone who invests heart and soul in everything she does.
The reason this works where the Tony Scott-Denzel Déjà Vu doesn’t is a direct result of her believable chemistry with Jake Gyllenhaal, whose ho-humness works to his advantage here. He’s the opposite of a hardcore action hero; he’s just a tired solider who wants to go home. Looks great on Blu Ray.
Sabrina (1954) dir. by Billy Wilder
What is it about Audrey Hepburn? How does she endure in hearts and minds of young girls now more than contemporaries such as Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor? My daughter became hooked with Roman Holiday and then stayed with the more sophisticated Sabrina even though I thought she would soon become bored. She saw it as the fairy tale it was supposed to be: the common girl who chose between two princes in the castle. (Although I am sure, just like audiences in 1955 were, a little confused as to why she would chose Bogart’s Linus over Holden’s David.) And the Billy Wilder-Ernest Lehman script had her laughing. A very good sign.
There should be a special section of this blog devoted to films that capture the essence of the dying movie star. More often than not, their peak is behind them. Even for the greats. The reason we remember Dean and Monroe is because we didn’t have to witness the betrayal of their bodies. But you can’t watch, say, The Misfits without knowing that Gable was soon to perish and wonder if he knew that. (Monroe, too, of course. But that was different.)
As far as I have been able to discover, McQueen knew he was sick during the filming of Tom Horn, but didn’t know he had incurable lung cancer. He was diagnosed shortly after the move was wrapped. But the film—and it is by no means a great one—is rendered more poignant in that a story purportedly about the Death of the West becomes one about the death of an icon of individualism. Life and art are bound together, narrative fused to metaphor.
After he starred in such films as Papillon and The Getaway in the first half of the decade, the 70s turned empty for McQueen. He retired from acting for several years and Tom Horn was a comeback of sorts. His looks had faded and he was smaller, softer. There are several parts of the film where stunt doubles may have been used. But his spirit remained present. In a badly composed scene late in the film where Horn makes one desperate bid for freedom, it feels now like McQueen himself is running for his life, for a few extra moments.
True Grit (2010) dir. by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
This wonderful movie will soon merit its own post, but suffice it to say, this is top tier Coen brothers.
Some might prefer their more nihilistic turns in A Serious Man or No Country for Old Men, but I prefer when they, well, lighten up a bit. The sequence in which young Mattie Ross (an unreal 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld) dresses for her journey, gathers her horse, and bravely crosses a swollen river alone made me want to cheer, while its deathly beautiful, greyswept climax (echoing The Night of the Hunter) had me in tears.
The film shimmers. Some would argue genre films can never be art. True Grit is a rebuttal. And because of Steinfeld’s heroic performance, it’s a movie I hope to share with my daughter for years to come.
Winter’s Bone (2010) dir. by Debra Granik
Speaking of tough girls, Jennifer Lawrence deserved the plaudits she received for a teenager trying to search for her no-good father and keep her family together amid the abject poverty of the Ozarks.
While the film is driven by a nourish plot, it triumphs in the small details. The opening minutes are riveting in their precision. In their own way, the images of a hardscrabble and entirely insular American existence are as unsparing as those of the Rio slums in a film such as City of God. When the outside does intrude, it does through only by the two constants in any society—the police and the military.
While the ending provides resolution, it is not uplifting. Sometimes the crab can’t leave the bucket.