Showing posts with label favorites. Show all posts
Showing posts with label favorites. Show all posts

13 June 2018

Guilty Secrets


I was invited by my Santa Fe pal Johnny D. Boggs, a terrific Western writer, to post a list of ten favorite movies on Facebook, one a day, in ascending order from #10 to #1, with the title and an original theatrical poster, if possible, but without explaining the choices. Every day, nominate somebody else to follow your lead. Sort of like a movie fan chain letter.
Now, this is a serious responsibility - no irony intended. For example, Johnny's choice for his Number 7 was The Grapes of Wrath, and he attached my name to it. (When we got to his Number 1, it was The Searchers.) My point being that you couldn't risk being frivolous. I had to really think about it. My first instinct was to follow Johnny's lead, and do Classics, my personal Ten Best list. The Wild Bunch, Seven Samurai, Letter From an Unknown Woman. But then I thought, No, wait. Why not Guilty Secrets? What if the criteria were, you're sitting down to dinner, you're gonna watch a movie, and saying you had the DVD on your shelf, or you could stream it live, which pictures would be your defaults? Any night, or every night?

So here's the list, which is utterly arbitrary. The only unifying conceit is that I've watched these movies over and over, and would again, tonight or any other night.

[NOTE: I put these upon Facebook without explanation, per the rules. I've added my own little cheats.]



Red Dawn (1984)
Ridiculous, knuckle-dragging claptrap, of the highest order. Then again, if you stop for a minute and consider that Milius meant it as a metaphor for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Wolverines as mujahideen, it actually makes sense. Ravishingly shot, in New Mexico locations, by Ric Waite. Powers Boothe steals the movie.



Juggernaut (1974)
It's been suggested that we're fascinated by the nuts and bolts of how to do things. Heist pictures, Rififi, or here, an ocean liner in the mid-Atlantic wired with high explosive, the bomb disposal team parachuting in, the clock winding down. Dick Lester directed. Enough star power to sink the Poseidon. Clifton James and Roy Kinnear blow them all out of the water.



The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The opening shot, as the credits fade. The camera dollies down, past the snowbound railway platform, and then a car drifts by, at ground level. You can almost see the string pulling it along. The fact that the entire scene is a model only ingratiates it to me. It's an innocent artifice, an invitation. When you catch sight of Charters and Caldicott in the waiting room, you can't help but smile in anticipation. You fall into the familiar rhythms.



In Harm's Way (1965)
Enormous, clunky, overwrought. All of the above. It gets a terrific, muscular punch from Wayne, who delivers a thoughtful, considered character that the other people in the movie seem to think is easy to read. The dramatic mechanics of the picture are pure Preminger, the formal checks and balances, but Wayne demonstrates a gravity of purpose that subverts it. You're all too aware of the labor involved, the engines and devices, the undertaking itself. Wayne doesn't struggle to be convincing. he gives his guy weight, without ever being ponderous.



The Train (1964)
Frankenheimer. What else do I need to say? The disorienting montage of Manchurian Candidate, the pulled focus of Seven Days in May. An integrated technique in this picture. The inertial, iron force of the locomotives. The fact that there's no CGI (oh, and Burt Lancaster does his own stunts). The truly amazing dolly shots, Labiche crossing the freight yards to the boat moored by the canal towpath; the colonel at Wehrmacht headquarters in Paris, the camera finding him in the chaos; the scene with Labiche casting the damaged engine part. I bow to genius.



Charade (1963)
Please. I can't imagine I have to say anything at all.



Two Rode Together (1961)
You knew there was going to be a Ford, right? This is here. of course, because of the scene by the river. "I thought she had something stuck in her teeth." For all its comedy - and 'comedy' isn't really the right word, it's burlesque - Two Rode Together is terrifically dark, much more so than The Searchers, which for all its darkness ends on a note of hope. Two Rode Together is despairing.



The War Lord (1965)
Meditative, although on paper it must have been pitched as a swashbuckler. A guy whose devotion to duty is inflexible throws it all away for love, both carnal and idealized. A very old-fashioned conceit. Terrific art direction. I love the fact that the keep is nothing like the castles in Ivanhoe, say, but a brute stone tower, damp, smoky, the horses stabled below. Guy Stockwell gets all the good lines. Richard Boone's forlorn devotion to Heston commands genuine heartbreak. Haunting score.



The Night of the Generals (1967)
Not much of a mystery, not when the biggest headliner in the cast is twitching like he's got St. Vitus' Dance. but the way they tell the story, the fractured narrative and the unreliable narrators. And the main device, a murder in wartime, where killing is every man's trade. In a movie top-heavy with brand names, the lively presence of Charles Gray in support is like a whiff of ammonia, piercing and astringent, a master class in the pursed lip and the cocked eyebrow. You want supercilious? This is ur-supercilious.



The Duellists (1977)
Ridley Scott's first feature. You're joking, right? Nope. He'd done commercials and TV, but The Duellists is his first movie. People talk about Ridley's eye. The cinematographer on The Duellists is Frank Tidy (and it was his first feature film), but Ridley is his own camera operator - he's the guy looking through the lens. Think about it. The next picture is Alien. Where did this astonishing, feverish, specific gaze come from? It seems to have simply sprung into being, already fully found. The Duellists is hallucinatory, but transparent as glass.

*

Ten runners up.
  The Professionals
  On the Beach
  Night Train to Munich
  Ronin
  Extreme Prejudice
  The Dogs of War
  Rio Bravo
  Midnight Cop
  Hour of the Gun
  Casablanca

24 July 2017

Withnail & I


Picture this: A large, empty, cavernous movie theater auditorium in the depths of winter. I'm in a jacket and scarf, and my breath is visible. It's a matinee screening and no one else came. The lights go down and the ruby red curtains part. A soulful saxophone echoes: a four a.m. version of Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale. Up on the screen, a man sits in profile in a darkened sitting room and smokes a cigarette. He's contemplating the universe, or he's about to face a firing squad.
This is a memory burnt into my mind. And I am lately reminded that it happened thirty years ago.

Thirty years ago, Kevin called me up on the telephone. "You should go see it," he said. He'd called to tell me about a movie that had opened a couple of days earlier. I don't remember his exact words, but I remember his enthusiasm, and the movie was Withnail and I.

"What's it about?"

A couple of days later, I sat alone in that aforementioned empty movie theater: The Embassy; a cold, uninspiring Art Deco building of creams and off whites. It used to stand on the corner of Lorne and Wellesley Streets in Auckland City, and it was a proper movie palace: wide, a couple of levels, big fat chocolate leather seats (and not a darkened shoe box like most cinemas today).

"What the hell was that about?" Francine asked, two weeks later, when I suggested we go see it (me for the second time), and we did, and we sat in a café afterwards.

The movie is set in England in 1969 and it's about a lot of different things, and to describe any one of them would do disservice to the others. To my mind, it's about as close to a book as any movie has ever gotten. When I close a good book, I'm left first with a mood, a feeling; it's taken me somewhere emotionally. Remembering scenes and moments (and the plot) comes later.

Essentially, Withnail is the story of two actors. They've graduated from drama school and are looking for work. They're unemployed and the world owes them no favors. In fact, the world seems to offer no hope whatsoever. The world is crumbling.
This can be read as a metaphor, and it's the key to the movie's popularity (it flopped when it was first released, but it's since become a perennial favorite; a cult classic). We've all been there. The waiting. The what next? The what do I do now?

It doesn't matter the career or chosen path, be it actor, writer, musician, or ________ (fill in the blank). Most of us have found ourselves, at some point, standing at the crossroads wondering what the hell do we do next?

Do I wait for the phone to ring? Do I go out and hustle? How does this thing work?

And there is no right answer. And Withnail doesn't provide one.

That's the trouble with most movies today. There's always a right answer: it's provided for you, usually in triplicate, and underlined. You can watch and "understand" most movies today without almost any assistance from your brain.

I'm not arguing that Withnail & I is the greatest movie ever made, but it takes you somewhere, if you want it to. And I will argue that it's one of the more sharply written and better acted.

Withnail ends in Regent's Park, London. It's raining. It's a miserable day. One of the actors has left to catch a train; he has secured a job. The other is left drunk at the bars of the wolf enclosure, his future uncertain. He recites the what a piece of work is man? monologue from Hamlet. The wolves are uninterested.


Again, a metaphor.

Withnail & I is about whatever you want to find in it.

Withnail & I (at the IMDB)

Stephen Ross (on Facebook)

17 July 2014

The National Pasttime


It's a golden Sunday afternoon in South Dakota as I write this, and my husband and I are headed off to a minor league baseball game later.  There's a whole bunch of reasons I love baseball.  When I was a kid, I lived in southern California, and we watched the Dodgers every chance we could on TV.  I had a major crush on Sandy Koufax.  My second favorite team, of course, was the San Francisco Giants.  And my mother and I hissed the damn Yankees every chance we got.

Now I have a theory that there is something about baseball that makes it fuel for great novels and great movies, in a way that no other sport seems to do. Granted, every sport has at least one fantastic book and/or movie based on it. And before you start screaming about why I didn't include certain movies, I know that every sport has its dying player movie (Brian's Song v. Bang the Drum Slowly, James Caan v. Robert DeNiro, for example, take your pick), and its unusual and/or unlikable and/or unbeatable coach movie (often ad nauseum, make your own list).  And the occasional one with animal players, often monkeys (Every Which Way But Loose leaps to mind).  SO:

SURFING (my second favorite sport to watch - can you tell I'm a California girl?):  Endless Summer, of course, and Riding Giants.  (And, just for a time capsule and a so-bad-its-good movie, Gidget.)

BASKETBALL:  Hoosiers, Hoop Dreams, and He Got Game.

FOOTBALL:  Friday Night Lights, book, movie and show.  But my personal guilty pleasure is, Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins, sadly made into an incredibly bad movie in the 70's.
(NOTE to Dan Jenkins:  get Kevin Smith to direct a new version of Semi-Tough, PLEASE, because he's the only director I can think of that could do justice to your profanity-laced, sex-sodden, really f---ing hilarious take on football, rivalry, and true love.  You do that, and it might wash the taste of that Michael Ritchie version out of my mind...)

ICE HOCKEY:  Slapshot.

Now these are good, but if you want depth, I think there are only two sports that really bring it out:  baseball and boxing.

TheNaturalFirstEdition.jpgThe Natural by Bernard Malamud.  Forget the movie version, though it's good in its own way.  The novel is raw and angry and sad and an allegory of life from the point of view of all of us who have screwed at least one thing up so badly it will never come right or have had fate step in and snatch everything away just as we had it in our hand:
"Roy, will you be the best there ever was in the game?"  "That's right."  She pulled the trigger...
"We have two lives; the life we learn with and the life we live after that."
Back when I put myself through college teaching ESL, we used The Natural to teach our Puerto Rican baseball scholarship students in order to get them to read - and it worked.  It also broke (some of) their adolescent, ambitious little hearts. Great book.  Good movie.

You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner.  A collection of short stories, all letters from the road, penned by Jack Keefe, the dumbest, greediest, most cluelessly self-absorbed pitcher the Chicago White Sox ever had.  I don't think even Will Farrell could capture Jack Keefe, because he is...  just read it and laugh your head off. (NOTE:  Ring Lardner ranks as one of the greatest short story writers of all time, imho, if nothing else for these and "Haircut" and "The Golden Honeymoon")

Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella.  Read it, please.  And, yes, go get the movie.  I hold my breath through half the movie, and then cry shamelessly (usually after the appearance of Burt Lancaster) every time I see the damn thing.



Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof and Stephen Jay Gould.  A meticulous, well-written, time capsule of the time and events of the worst baseball scandal in history.  The movie isn't any slouch, either, directed by John Sayles with a strong, strong cast, especially D. B. Sweeney as Shoeless Joe Jackson and Studs Terkel as sportswriter Hugh Fullerton.

Speaking of baseball movies, here's a few, in no particular order:
Bull Durham
The Pride of the Yankees
Damn Yankees (whatever Lola wants...)
Ken Burns' Baseball
A League of Their Own
The Rookie
The Babe Ruth Story
Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings

Now I said baseball and boxing, and first of all, here are some great boxing movies:

Raging Bull.  Rocky.  Requiem for a HeavyweightWhen We Were Kings.  The Harder They Fall.

And I think I may have found the connection.  We all know both boxing and baseball from the inside out. Most of us have played baseball, from sandlot on up.  Most of us have either gotten into a fight or watched one, with a lot (of pride, if nothing else) riding on the outcome.  Both sports give the illusion that anybody with enough heart can do it, otherwise we wouldn't be so damned bothered by all the allegations of doping in baseball, at least.  After all, we don't mind what are essentially genetic freaks (most people aren't 7 feet tall, folks!) in basketball; and when is someone going to bring up the size of American football players, especially fullbacks?  Surfers are too cool dude; and you can't even see hockey players...

But baseball players and boxers are right out there, for us all to see.  And both boxing and baseball movies and novels tend to focus on individual heroism and/or failure.  Both sports allow an individual to take center stage, to let us get to know them, and then watch them sink or swim.  We can make emotional connections. And they can be made into allegories that almost everyone can relate to.

Or at least that's my theory.  Meanwhile, I've got to get out to the ballpark!



26 November 2013

My Hit List Strikes Again


Last June I posted My Hit List, a list of thirty of my favorite mystery/crime films, many of them obscure and forgotten.  (Okay, most of them obscure and forgotten.)  Just to show that I can do this all day long, here are another thirty films for which I'm thankful on this Thanksgiving week.  
I'm once again purposely avoiding mystery series, about which I've also posted and may post again when you least expect it.  And again, I've passed over some better known and undeniably great films, like The Big Sleep and Chinatown, because they don't need a plug from me.  Even without the former title, the films of the 1940s are overrepresented here, as they were in my original list.  What can I say?  The forties were to mysteries what the fifties were to westerns and the sixties to Annette Funicello pictures.  A golden age.

I hope you've had a chance to sample a couple of films from the original list and that you'll also try a few of the following guaranteed gems.


1930s

The Phantom of Crestwood (1932)
A real curiosity.  A movie based on a radio serial with an ending voted on by listeners (or so the producers claimed).  The solid cast is headed up by Ricardo Cortez, the movies' first Sam Spade.

Star of Midnight (1935)
William Powell of The Thin Man fame in a Thin Man knockoff, with Ginger Rodgers. 

The Princess Comes Across (1936)
Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray in a comic mystery set aboard an ocean liner.  (What did you think the title meant?)  MacMurray even sings.

Night Must Fall (1937)
Robert Montgomery established his acting chops in this film version of the famous Emlyn Williams play about a brutal killer in rural England.


1940s

The Glass Key (1942)
An underappreciated Dashiell Hammett novel becomes the best of the Alan Ladd/ Veronica Lake teamings.  William Bendix is a truly scary bad guy.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Former musical star Dick Powell is a believable Philip Marlowe, at least until he takes off his shirt.  The great Claire Trevor is in support in this adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely.

The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Many people would pick this as the best of the Ladd/Lake pictures.  I think it's only a close second, in part because the original script, by Raymond Chandler, was watered down during filming.  Another solid supporting turn by William Bendix.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
What long-ago crime binds Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Kirk Douglas?  Noir regular Lizabeth Scott would like to know.
  
Riffraff (1947)
Graying but game Pat O'Brien versus oil field hijackers in Panama with the aid of Anne

Jeffreys.

The Unsuspected (1947)
Actually, you will suspect the solution before it's revealed, but the cast, which includes Claude Rains and three striking blondes (Constance Bennett, Audrey Totter, and Joan Caufield), makes this worthwhile. 

Force of Evil (1948)
Very short, very intense noir film features John Garfield as a glib mob lawyer.  The always good Thomas Gomez is especially so here.

The Big Clock (1948)
Ray Milland is a magazine editor assigned to head up a murder investigation.  Every clue his staff turns up points to. . . Ray Milland.  Charles Laughton plays his oily boss.

Criss Cross (1949)
More noir with Burt Lancaster running afoul of Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea.

 

1950s

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, and director Otto Preminger, all Laura veterans, reunite for a much tougher and darker film.

Man With a Cloak (1951)
Barbara Stanwyck again and Joseph Cotton, as a mystery man out to save Leslie Caron in 19th Century New York.  This time Stanwyck sings.

Detective Story (1951)
Kirk Douglas as the grandfather of all burned out cops.  The film's stage roots show, but a great cast brings it to life.  William Bendix (who is to this list what Herbert Marshall was to my first one) is again outstanding in a serious supporting role.  (This movie was nominated by Herschel Cozine after my original list was posted.) 

Kansas City Confidential (1952)
John Payne out to clear his name.  A interesting mix of fading stars, like Payne and Preston Foster, and up and comers, like Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam, a characteristic of most B pictures.



The Narrow Margin (1952)
Low-budget cult film of cop Charles McGraw trying to keep star witness Marie Windsor alive during a train trip from Chicago to LA.  McGraw is tougher than Intermediate German.
 
The Blue Gardenia (1953)
Why should dahlias have all the fun?  When Anne Baxter is accused of murdering Raymond Burr, columnist Richard Conte comes to her aid.



The Big Heat (1953)
Glenn Ford as a cop who loses everything in his pursuit of a crime ring.  Lee Marvin is a particularly slimy mobster. 


1960s

A Shot in the Dark (1964)
Comic whodunit was the second Inspector Clouseau film and the only one without any Pink Panther business.  For that reason, and the participation of Elke Sommer, it's also the best.

Mirage (1965)
A Hitchcock thriller made without Hitchcock.  Gregory Peck has lost his memory (as he did in Hitchcock's Spellbound) and he's on the run (and he was in Hitchcock's Spellbound).  P.I. Walter Matthau tries to help.

Point Blank (1967)
A film that's more iconic than obscure.  Lee Marvin wants the mob to pay him his money and shoots his way through the organizational chart to get it.  Why don't they just pay the guy?  Angie Dickinson heads up the supporting cast.

 Cogan's Bluff (1968)
How obscure can it be with Clint Eastwood as its star?  Contemporary Arizona lawman comes to New York to butt heads with Lee J. Cobb and meet Susan Clark.  Betty Fields, a bright young face of the 1940s, makes her sad last film appearance here. 

P.J. (1968)
A 1960s take on film noir, starring George Peppard as a P.I. hired to bodyguard Gale Hunnicut by her millionaire husband Raymond Burr, a veteran of forties noir.



1970s

They Only Kill Their Masters (1972)
James Garner is a small-town policeman trying to solve a complex murder.  Katharine Ross is the romantic interest, but the supporting cast is largely made up of names from the forties brought on to give this a forties feel.  They include June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Edmond O'Brien, and Anne Rutherford.  

Charley Varrick (1973)
Thriller detailing the plight of Walter Matthau, a small-time bank robber who accidently knocks over a mob bank.  Joe Don Baker almost steals the film as the hit man sent after him.

Night Moves (1975)
California P.I. Gene Hackman is in over his head in the Florida Keys.  Directed by Arthur Penn. 

The Late Show (1977)
Aging P.I. Art Carney sets out to solve the murder of his old partner Howard Duff. (Duff was old-time radio's Sam Spade, making this an evocative bit of casting).  Lily Tomlin in support.

Murder by Degree (1979)
Peter Finch as Sherlock Holmes and James Mason as Dr. Watson face off against Jack the Ripper, one of whose victims is Susan Clark.  John Gielgud, who once played Holmes on the radio, does a cameo.  


Once again, I didn't make it to the eighties, but last time I didn't get past 1974, so I did break new old ground.  Maybe next time, when My Hit List Strikes Back, I can "finish off" the century.