MOVIES I LOVE
Following are a series of random essays I've written about movies that I love.
Martin Ritt adapts an Elmore Leonard western with Paul Newman in the title role. Should say it all right there. The movie is spare, concise, and razor sharp and the performances are natural and lived in.
Newman is John Russell, a white man raised by Apaches with a healthy loathing for civilization and its occupants. He's pulled into their world when he inherits a hotel and wants a quick exit by selling it as soon as possible, not caring what happens to those who count on it for a living. Not his problem.
It becomes his problem when the stagecoach he and those others are on is robbed and their lives are suddenly in grave danger. He is beyond capable of taking care of himself, and does, but now he must decide if he's going to help THEM survive. They are disgusted and confounded by him, and are now clinging to him for life. Race, class, and status all come into play as they struggle to outsmart the men intent on killing them - as do courage, sacrifice and personal integrity. Especially when he decides to put himself on the line for them. Damn.
It doesn't get much cooler than Newman as "Hombre", and Leonard's source material is, as usual, transcendent. When villain Richard Boone assesses him, "You've got a lot of hard bark on you, coming down here alone." it is earned. HOMBRE is badass, smart, and ultimately heartbreaking. I love it.
John Boorman's excellent adaptation of the King Arthur legend is probably unknown to a great many folks, and that's too bad. I was too young or too uninterested when it came out, but discovered it years later and was blown away. Polanski went for a bloody Macbeth, but it didn't have the operatic grandeur Excalibur achieves, especially with the use of Wagner throughout the epic tale.
Most people know a bit about the Arthur legend, and much of it is covered here - the sword in the stone, Merlin, the round table, Lancelot & Guenevere, the holy grail, and the Lady In The Lake. There is nothing tongue in cheek here, it is played straight and tough and sweepingly romantic, filed with despair and triumph. There are some truly spine tingling moments, especially the throwing of the sword into the lake. Babam! Goosebumps!
One of the unexpected pleasures is seeing a who's who of future stars, including Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson, but the real draw is the film itself. The final battle, Arthur squaring off against his own offspring with a blood red sun rising through the battle fog in the background, is the stuff of legend.
CHILDREN OF MEN
I honestly don't understand how this film isn't on the top lists of all time, especially science fiction... It is, to me, the greatest film to come out of the 2000's if not the 21st century.
Alfonso Cuaron's dystopian parable takes place in the near future, a world in which no new children have been born for many years. Hope has completely left mankind and they are living out their remaining days by turning on each other or simply giving up. Britain remains, and has closed its borders to refugees while maintaining a stoic facade as everything crumbles from within. Clive Owen brings a worn down sense of defeat to his character, a man who lost his son to one of the many epidemics that killed off all the children. When his ex-wife asks him to help a refugee escape he is in it only for the money, he is so broken that he cannot summon the heart to care for anything or anyone.
What he soon discovers is the refugee, a vulger street kid, is pregnant. The first pregnant woman in a decade. And everyone wants her. Some want her dead, some want to use her, and all parties will do anything to get her. The mere sight of a new life growing is enough to awaken something in him, and what he and others go through to protect this child is beyond my ability to describe.
Even writing this now I'm on the verge of tears just thinking about it. The world seems without hope, then this thing happens and the cynical/apathetic rise to the challenge, they sacrifice greatly for something beautiful and pure.
There are scenes of action and violence in this film that rival anything you've seen, but they are played against moments of heart stopping beauty and hope. Great sacrifices are unquestioningly made to protect the child over and over again, and by the end I am always exhausted, emotionally drained by the raw power of the film, usually wiping tears from my face. But they aren't sad tears, they are joyful and filled with hope. That's what CHILDREN OF MEN is to me, how a shining sliver of hope can bring greatness out of those who had given up. Beyond a masterpiece to me, it is a miracle.
MINNIE & MOSKOWITZ
I have never taken more crap for loving a movie than I have for John Cassavettes' strange, uncomfortable and awkwardly joyful love story. Anyone I've ever tried to show it to has stopped talking to me and excommunicated me from their lives. That's only a slight exaggeration.
But what can I say? I like my romantic comedies with painfully drawn out moments of humiliation until you have no choice but to laugh, followed by heartbreakingly honest scenes of desperate loneliness. Gena Rowlands is astonishing as always as a woman who is learning to settle with less than she desires, and the magnificent Seymour Cassel is about as manic and nearly unlikable as you can get while maintaining a quasi-leading man role. He is Moskowitz, an idiosyncratic romantic who just can't control himself, and he falls madly in love with the out-of-his-league Minnie. She can't stand him but he won't stop, and maybe he can't stand her either and it leads to some essential Cassavettes squirm scenes... My favorite being when he gets her to dance in the parking lot by doing hand stands. Their chemistry is explosive, the dialog real, the emotions all very complicated. The scene in which Minnie and her elderly co worker watch Casablanca, then ruminate about sex and loneliness and how Hollywood has taught us all lies is unforgettable.
What Cassavettes does here, showing us that our expectations are our enemies, that class structure is something to be destroyed with contempt, that true love is a terrible inconvenience, results in one of my favorite romances ever. I love MINNIE & MOSKOWITZ.
I love horror films. Absolutely love them. PHANTASM is by no means my favorite, but it's one of the strangest. I've seen it a dozen times and still can't tell what really happens, but I can tell you I always enjoy the ride. Angus Scrimm brings to life one of my favorite villains, simply known as The Tall Man, and his weapons of choice are the infamous "spheres" - unrelenting silver orbs that chase you around and through mausoleum corridors with all kinds of nasty surprises.
I remember seeing the trailer for this film at a grindhouse theater when I was a kid, it was so strange and alien and spoke to a core fear-imagination within me that it literally kept me awake at night. Who was the Tall Man? Was there any way to outrun his spheres? What were the strange robed creatures??? Were they under my bed too????
PHANTASM is a wild, crazy mess of ideas and it's my belief that those who don't like it just don't get it. I don't like it, I love it.
THE RIGHT STUFF
Though it's a little uneven in its pacing, Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Tom Wolfe's fantastic book about the first Americans in space gets enough absolutely right to make it legendary.
The tone and performances make these men mythic but accessible. Ed Harris as John Glenn is one of the most inspired casting decisions of all time, and Scott Glenn, Fred Ward & Dennis Quaid all make their mark.
But let's get real. The movie is about Chuck Yeager. And there's not much in the history of my childhood that comes as close to ultimate cool as Sam Shepard as the greatest pilot who ever lived. I remember seeing him in this film and thinking, "that is my ideal, that is the man I want to be when I grow up". I have failed in this endeavor, spectacularly. But when I need a little dose of something to look up to or aspire to, this film has got, and I'm sorry\not sorry, THE RIGHT STUFF. I'm cheesy and I love it. I also love this movie.
TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA
Sometimes folks who see this film now can't get over how dated it feels, that the incredibly 80's music and fashions that were cutting edge at the time haven't aged well. I look at it as a period piece, a capsule that contains a remarkable look at a specific time and place.
The soundtrack, by Wang Chung, is actually something to behold and beyond the pop tunes is a moody atmosphere that rivals the best of John Carpenter. The cinematography and editing are also cutting edge even by today's standards, and the directing? I consider it among William Friedkin's finest films.
William Peterson is a revelation as a cocky, a-holish secret service agent hell bent on busting Willem Defoe's terrifying and creepy counterfeiter. He pulls his soft as butter partner into a scheme to catch the criminal that goes wrong in some pretty stomach dropping ways, including one of the most emotionally intense car chases I've ever seen.
The movie, like everyone in it, is ultra cool and worthy of study. Every frame is important and gorgeous, from the first shot to the shocking finale. I love this movie.
THE BLUES BROTHERS
THE BLUES BROTHERS is tied with THE WILD BUNCH as my all time fave, though it's the one that I watch all the time. Seriously, it is a mood-changer for me. I watched it today and by the end was filled with the same giddy joy it always delivers. The film is also deeply looped into my life - it's a Chicago movie, it features music that I love, it has been there for me to enjoy in rough times, and it is also the last film I saw with both my parents before they divorced!
I remember idolizing Jake & Elwood and being in the Jewel parking lot with my mom as she chastised me for wearing the same dirty clothes several days in a row. "You have clean clothes! What's the matter with you?"
I said, "I'm like Jake & Elwood, the Blues Brothers."
She was appalled. "Why would you want to be like them?"
I couldn't understand... they were magic! They had a magic car! They survived every attempt at their life by Princess Leia! People broke into joyful song and dance whenever they were around! They ran over Nazis! Who wouldn't idolize them?
I watch THE BLUES BROTHERS often. So often I'm embarrassed to admit. Okay, once every couple months. Or more. And it never fails me.
I laugh every time they place their order at Aretha's. A goofy grin happens without fail when they hit Ray's Music Exchange. Donald "Duck" Dunne saying If The Shit Fits, Wear It. The immortal restaurant scene: No sir, Mayor Daley no longer dines here. He's dead, sir. Wrong GLASS, sir... I still remember trying to dance like Elwood and hurting my knees, or (maybe) crying when my sister accidentally broke my Blues Brothers record. I've got a new one. It never fails either.
L.A. CONFIDENTIAL often doesn't get the love it deserves. The story of three very different cops who become aware of a massive conspiracy and decide to do something about it went against TITANIC at the Oscars and got creamed, but it's pretty damned close to perfect.
Again the leads are all very flawed characters, often motivated by selfishness or their own cruel natures - so when they decide to go against an insurmountable enemy to right wrongs it gives one hell of an emotional punch. The plot is razor sharp, the dialog is essential and the performances all ring true. Just watch Kevin Spacey try to remember why he became a cop, or Russell Crowe's face when he thinks he might make detective... Or my favorite moment: when Guy Pearce hears the name Rolo Tomasi. Chills. A masterwork.
THE WILD BUNCH
Tied for my all time favorite film ever. It rewrote the western and promises plenty of brutal and gritty action... But that's not what it's about. It's one of the most complex, rich character studies I've ever seen and also a layered commentary on redemption and honor. I've read entire books dissecting the intricacies of this wonderful film. If you love movies you owe it to yourself to experience this great American masterpiece. This particular moment in the film is, I feel, one of the most incredible scenes in any film ever.
But that's just my opinion, check it out yourself.