30 films in 30 days: The Last Waltz

Let’s not bury the lede: I didn’t make it. I couldn’t watch 30 films in 30 days. Life intervened. I did, however, make it to 23. I suppose this needs to be filed under the category of Noble Failure. I also learned that if I don’t write the reviews directly after watching the films, I’ll never do it.  (And it took me an extra month just to finish this wrapup.) But I’m not giving up. We’ll try it again when the weather grows colder.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at what was able to screen:

#14 The Last Waltz (1978)

Viewing this was inspired, sadly, by the death of the great Levon Helm. I used to make the habit of watching this on Thanksgiving. The Blu Ray looks fine (grain is grain) but most important, sounds terrific. One thing you note is that Levon is hardly in the movie, which apparently resulted in some bitterness toward Robbie Robertson, who is clearly the star of the show. I have no idea how much of the documentary material Scorsese shot and whether scenes with Helm, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel ended up being cut–but a viewer who knew little about the Band would come away think Robertson was the band’s heart and soul.

Does Scorsese paint an inaccurate picture of the Band? Depends if you consider that to have been his job. Is he a documentarian with a duty to chronicle the scene responsibly or is he a filmmaker?As a filmmaker, Scorsese found his central character in Robertson, the most articulate and insightful member of the group. It’s clear from the bonus material that Scorsese was out to make something more than just a rock concert film and Robertson became the vehicle to tell a bigger story. I don’t fault him for that.

#15 Choose Me (1984)

An odd little film from Alan Rudolph that is so much a part of its time–the early 1980s–that it almost prompted me to laugh during the opening scenes. All that neon. David Thomson has written that you can usually guess almost right away when a particular film was shot from its look and there is no mistaking when this film takes place. (Or maybe that’s just because Rae Dawn Chong is in it.)

Choose Me is a small-scale story with a sort of breathless, hyperdramatic intensity. Everyone’s motor seems to be running a little hot. It’s one of those films in which when a man and a woman are alone in a room, it’s pretty clear they’ll be sleeping together soon.  The story involves a radio sex therapist looking for love (Geneieve Bujold) , a tough-but-tender bar owner (Lesley Ann Warren playing the Susan Sarandon role) and smoothie, Keith Carradine, who appears to live at the bus station. Its quirkiness masks a definite lack of dramatic tension.

A long way from the Baltimore diner.

#16 Iron Man 2 (2010)

Labeling a costly, star-powered tentpole film like this a “product,” isn’t a new approach. But I was struck by the sheer amount of talent, all the lengthy resumes involved, in crafting a film about a guy who flies around in a metal suit. Robert Downey, Gweneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Mickey Freaking Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel Jackson, Sam Rockwell, and Paul Bettany as the “voice of Jarvis.” I’d love to say all that firepower shows up on the screen, but the film is weirdly listless–and just about everyone plays a cartoon.

And instead of being insouciant, Downey’s Tony Stark comes off as a prick. After a promising start–assuming you can buy Rourke as a mad-Russian engineering genius– the film flatlines pretty quickly, with the low point coming when Downey and Cheadle engage in an armor-plated wrestling match. This has to be the first movie in history that includes a scene where the hero, now in the familiar cycle of loss and redemption that has characterized all superhero sequels since Superman II, snaps out of his doldrums by inventing a new element in his home lab. That being said, I’ll probably have to see The Avengers.

#17 Melancholia (2011)

A powerful, challenging film that stays with you, thanks to Kirstin Dunst’s intense performance (she’s the polar opposite of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl). Lars von Trier makes a film about the end of the world to illustrate that when you’re trapped in a depression, it really does feel like everything is over. And even worse, you don’t give a shit. The opening images are every bit as powerful as Terrence Malick’s similar (in theme at least) The Tree of Life. Also surprisingly good in the film is Kiefer Sutherland–and he doesn’t even have to shoot or torture anyone. Not sure I have ever seen a movie with such a pervasive feeling of dread running through it. It is starkly beautiful work.

#18 Rope (1948)/#19 Call Northside 777 (1948)

If anyone were to ask me my favorite actor in screen history, I doubt my first thought would be James Stewart. And yet, if I look though my movie collection, he’s all over the place. In comedies such as The Philadelphia Story, to westerns like The Man from Laramie and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, to Hitchockian thrillers such as Vertigo, to a courtroom drama such as Anatomy of a Murder. (Oh–and that Christmas movie–what’s it called again?). Rope and Northside were filmed in a bit of a fallow period for Stewart. He had returned to Hollywood following his distinguished military service in World War II unsure if his career would thrive. Ultimately, he chose to build upon the homespun, aw-shucks character he had developed in the late 1930s, appearing in films with a darker, more psychological tones. (It’s a Wonderful Life, as beloved as it now is, traffics in failure, disappointment, and suicide.)

In collaborations with Hitchcock, Anthony Mann, and Otto Preminger, Stewart would go on to have as strong a decade during the 1950s as any actor has ever had, but even these two modest films reveal that Stewart was interested in experiments. Rope is actually more notable for its use of extremely long takes and it’s “real time” sense than for its story, which is a bit of a snoozer. In 80 minutes, Stewart’s character exposes a murder plot at a cocktail party that we, the audience, have been privy to all along. In Northside, Stewart plays a newspaper reporter who slowly comes to believe in the innocence of a convicted murderer. The film was shot on location in Chicago neighborhoods that gives it a verisimilitude rare for the time.

#20 The Way (2010)

On the topic of actors who project integrity, fewer have done so with more conviction or modesty than Martin Sheen. (He’s the opposite of Stewart on the political spectrum, however.) The Way is a spiritual, if not an overly moving, personal film–a project conceived with his son, Emilio Estevez. Sheen’s character is a grieving father who sets out to walk Spain’s Camino de la Santiago as a tribute to his son, meeting the inevitable cast of colorful characters along the way. The movie meanders in the best way (it’s about a hike, after all) but in the end fails to rise above the trope of a hardy band of irregulars finding meaning together. Sheen effectively conveys the despair and confusion of a parent searching for answers both in this world and the next; the film wouldn’t work without his presence.

#21 Chinatown (1974)/#22 The Two Jakes (1990)

If possible, these two films should be shown together in film classes. I can’t think of a better way to illustrate how some works become classics and others collapse despite the best of intentions. Separated by 16 years, both feature Jack Nicholson as the cynical, but prosperous detective Jake Gittes, both delve into the corruption lurking below the surface in booming Southern California, both are fetishistic with historical detail. And yet, Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, does just about everything right and the Two Jakes, directed by Nicholson, gets so much wrong.

When pressed for a favorite film, I usually respond with “Chinatown,” although that answer 1) isn’t very creative and 2) possibly not true. But the film is so confident, so rich, so unafraid to take chances and so downright enjoyable that it’s hard to think of a better one. Thousand and thousands of words have been written about the movie, so I have little to add except that it takes a certain amount of filmmaking courage to make the protagonist a self-absorbed chump who, in fact, proves to be almost superfluous to the story. Polanski inverts everything we expect about heroism and evil. Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn is not a femme fatale, but a victim. John Huston’s Noah Cross is irredeemable–and unstoppable. Gittes is in over his head, except he doesn’t know it until the very end. The police are similarly useless. As many have noted, this was Polanski vision of Watergate-era America with Cross as a stand-in for California native son Dick Nixon.

If only Polanski had been available for the sequel. Instead, Two Jakes is a trainwreck. It feels slipshod, haphazard, despite the presence of Nicholson and Harvey Keitel. By reports, Robert Towne’s script was half-finished and it shows. The economy of the original is gone replaced by a convoluted plot that I couldn’t explain to you now if I tried. It’s set in the late 1940s and Nicholson lathers on the period details, including pop music, but it still somehow feels much more contemporary than Chinatown ever did. And the big reveal near the end of the film is so predictable that its maddening. Where Dunaway invested her character with a sincerely tragic quality, the performances here by Meg Tilly and (especially) Madeleine Stowe are laughably bad. There’s also a cliched Private Eye Voiceover that the original film never needed. The entire thing feels like a vanity production. Given that, it’s no wonder that Robert Evans was originally tapped to play the “other” Jake.

#23 China Gate (1957)

This is another oddball offering from Sam Fuller, coming on the heels of his similarly Asian-themed House of Bamboo. But China Gate lacked the same budget; it wasn’t shot on location, or in color, for that matter. What it does have is Angie Dickinson as a half-Chinese (!) bootlegger named Lucky Legs and Nat King Cole (!) as a commando dealing with a racist squad leader played by Gene Barry. Cole, in fact, breaks into song early in the film just before he and his compatriots go on a deadly mission. I’m fairly sure that didn’t happen in “The Longest Day.” It may have been the first film to feature the conflict in Vietnam, then the province of the French. Spoiler alert: Lucky Legs doesn’t end up very lucky. She does remain very leggy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s