April 30, 2007

Flicks: The Conversation

Hackman’s Harry Caul is a precursor to the role he played in “Enemy of the State,” right down to the abandoned warehouse headquarters. The details may be different, but the newer movie's Brill obviously channeled Harry Caul as a grumpy old man.

Throughout The Conversation, Caul embodies haunted loneliness. In the middle of a party, he’s all by himself. Every scene displays a new angle to the barriers Harry has raised between him and the world, his girlfriend, his partner, everyone. He’s afraid to open up to anyone, to trust anyone. Then in one scene and each subsequent scene that solitary life is justified.

The party was the decisive moment. As soon as he let’s down his guard, he’s punished for it. He opens up his fortress, literally and figuratively, allowing others in. From then on he gets his teeth kicked in at every turn. His jealous colleague badgers and humiliates him. Everyone he allows himself to trust betrays him, including those he wants to save.

In the end, he destroys nearly everything of value to him in order to regain the security he once had.

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April 20, 2007

Flicks: The Candidate

Clearly, I’m a product of my time. Post-Iran-Contra, post-Whitewater, post-Bush II, nothing that happened in The Candidate surprised me. In fact, the entire point of the movie was nearly too subtle for me to notice. Redford plays a big ‘L’ Liberal lawyer, defender of the little guy and so on who gets drafted into an election no one thinks he’d win. The focus of the film is how he gradually sacrifices some of his ideals to fit into the sound bites and commercials. He disgusts himself with every step away from who he was and periodically bursts with the outrage that motivated him in the first place. All his angst seems vaguely ridiculous in a time when one has to resort to platitudes and doubletalk before they can get enough signatures to enter an election, much less win it.

At the time it was probably the equivalent of Primary Colors, these days, it’s just a trite reminder of the world we live in. Redford’s character agrees with the critique that advertising for political office should have higher standards that advertising for detergent. They say that a candidate is not just another product to be sold like underarm deodorant. I don’t think anyone has seriously considered that argument in decades.

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April 15, 2007

Flicks: Escape from Alcatraz

I think I'm just not impressed with the prison movie genre. I enjoyed The Great Escape, but Escape from Alcatraz was all by the numbers as far as I could tell. In the first 30 minutes he meets the whole collection of prison misfits: The bully who wants to make Eastwood his bitch, the guy who keeps a strange pet, the wise old black guy, who doubles as the unjustly imprisoned, of course there's the evil warden, and the guy who loses his mind. It's all there. It was interesting seeing Eastwood, I haven't seen much of his old movies. He seethes and squints. He's a lot cleaner than in the westerns I've seen him in.

Maybe seeing the Shawshank Redemption first spoiled me. It probably stole more than a bit from Escape from Alcatraz. The digging in the cell, the character types, and the triumph over the warden's tyranny all show up in both.

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April 10, 2007

Flicks: Rosemary's Baby

Now if more horror movies were like this, I'd probably be more interested in them. Technically, it isn’t even horror, I suppose. There’s barely any blood at all in the whole movie and the only use of ‘special effects’ – such as they were back then – were fairly brief if not subtle.

Mia Farrow’s Rosemary reminds me of Charlize Theron in The Devil’s Advocate. She’s gradually driven mad by everything around her. Rosemary wasn’t transplanted anywhere but into a new building, yet everything familiar is gone. She doesn’t see her friends anymore and people she shouldn’t trust are all around her.
Actually, that’s what’s most fascinating to me. Like the Zombie movies, the core of this story is that everyone is out to get you.

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April 5, 2007

Flicks: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

I’ve been looking forward to this for a while. Newman and Redford are great together. I saw The Sting years ago and loved it. But this is different. The focus is on relationships much more than in The Sting. Redford and Newman are together in nearly every scene, which gives us more time to see them interact with to one another. Even in their gang, Butch and Sundance are the real team. It’s never said how they got together and it’s clear that there is much they don’t know about each other. But they trust each other and they have each other’s back to the end no matter how much they bitch. Their relationship is complicated, and that’s without the woman in between them.

Which brings me to the love triangle. From the bicycle scene in the beginning of the movie – which I remember seeing first in the Muppet Movie decades ago – it’s clear that Butch loves Etta easily as much as Sundance does. But never in the film does it become an issue. It lies beneath the surface the entire time, never boiling over. Etta loves them both and they both love her. And when the time comes, as it must, for the tragedy to end, she leaves because she doesn’t want to see either of them die.

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April 1, 2007

Flicks: Touch of Evil

Conventional wisdom dictates that Charlton Heston did not appear in anything worth seeing other than The Planet of the Apes. Ok, I made that up. But it seems right. I can’t tell you what I’d give to see Heston, William Shatner and Keanu Reeves in a movie together. It would have a 10 page script and would be 5 hours long.

I’m going to try to ignore the brown face and the bad accents and focus on the rest of the movie...

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March 25, 2007

Flicks: Easy Rider

I don’t do drugs.
Consequently a major dimension of Easy Rider is lost on me.
It’s a little disheartening to see that Dennis Hopper’s been doing the same damn routine for thirty odd years.
It all descends into madness in the New Orleans LSD scene. I’m sure there are layers of complexity to be found here, but all I see is a cautionary tale as to why one shouldn’t play with film equipment while high.

Ok, so there’s more to it than that. Jack Nicholson’s role was minor, but the only one that was worthwhile. He was the only sensible voice in the movie and he was raving drunk. His monologue on freedom is the only redeeming feature and unfortunately all the freedom they want is the right to be dirty hippies. For all the harassment they suffer in the movie, the only freedom they are looking for amounts to doing lots of drugs and not shaving. Given the context of the time, it all just seems like adolescent persecution fantasy. They aren’t rebelling against an unjust war, they aren’t fighting for equality or a proper education, they are just riding around stoned and dirty.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Be a stoner, be a dirty hippie, make a movie that’s an end-to-end trip. But don’t act like it’s any more than that. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas did a great job of this. And it did it without the self-righteous claptrap.

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March 20, 2007

Flicks: Sleeper

If every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, the middle of Sleeper lasts about 10 minutes. The movie is really rather strange. It’s all set up. I don’t know much Woody Allen. I’ve only seen Annie Hall. I wasn’t expecting quite so much slapstick. The musical chase scenes were like something out of Benny Hill. I'm not really sold on Woody Allen given what I've seen so far. Maybe I need to see more, but I'm not so motivated from what I've seen so far...


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March 8, 2007

Flicks: Some Like it Hot

We have Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon to thank for such gender bending comedies as Juwanna Mann and Sorority Boys, but I won’t hold that against them. The plot is similarly silly: musicians running from the mob, blah blah blah. Thankfully the set up is pretty quick. It’s all the same formula that’s been used for the last 60 years. Much like Caddyshack, this movie was less about the plot than the actors.

Jack Lemmon plays ‘the fool who follows’ very well. He martyrs himself for someone else’s plan, whether it’s sitting out in the cold while his bosses use his place as a love den in The Apartment or whiling the night away with a rich old man so his buddy can make time with the female lead. He’s very funny. Watching any movie of his, it’s clear where Felix Ungar came from. He’s indignant and put upon. In his mind he’s the voice of reason, but he’s rarely willing to stand up for himself. I’ll have to add The Odd Couple to my list.

Whoa. Marilyn Monroe.

This was the first movie I had ever seen starring Marilyn Monroe. Now I know where Jennifer Tilly got her schtick. Marilyn radiates sexuality whenever she’s on the screen. The role she had was simple, but she shined through every scene she was in. Her dizzy blonde cover belied a deeper knowledge hiding beneath the surface.
I’m looking forward to seeing more of her.

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March 3, 2007

Flicks: The Apartment

Forgive me for being surprised that Shirley Maclaine was once a hotty. I had no idea. By the time I heard of her, she was a punch line. It’s always interesting to see how New York is portrayed in Movies. Yiddish is strewn about left and right. He’s called a shlub and told to be a mensch.

Lemmon plays the pathetic sap pretty well. The inspiration for Old Gil from The Simpsons apparently has more history than ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ – which I still haven’t seen. He goes along to get along, doing whatever his bosses want him to do. Speaking of his bosses, nearly all of them were in one television show or another. My Favorite Martian, My Three Sons, and Bewitched were all represented in them managerial staff. Fred McMurray played a real prick very well.

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February 27, 2007

Flicks: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Devastating. Fine, it’s not old, it’s not a movie that everyone has seen. But it’s totally fucking devastating. The most emotional reaction movies usually evoke in me comes with the excitement of watching things get blown up or some other such thing that I’ve forgotten about before the movie ended. This hurt. I had heard about the movie before, I even read how the movie ended. I knew Charlie Kaufman wrote it, so I expected a mindfuck. What I didn’t expect was to feel pain as I watched Jim Carrey lose every moment they spent together. I watched him yank her through his memories, revealing his most humiliating experiences just to keep a shred of her left in his mind. I watched as the earliest memories are wiped away. And all I could feel was loss. I knew what happened in the end. I knew, but it didn’t matter. The loss, the pain was palpable. Movies don’t do this to me. They aren’t real and they are gone when I hit the stop button or walk out of the theatre. But there I was enthralled by this story, so well done, well acted, well portrayed.

I defy anyone to watch this and tell me Jim Carrey can’t do more than his usual schtick. The whole cast was wonderful. I can’t begin to fawn over each and every one of them. Part of me wants to own it, just because a movie like this deserves to be owned if that makes any sense. But I’m afraid I wouldn’t ever want to get caught up in it again. I may yet buy it and watch it every time I fear I don’t appreciate the love in my life enough.

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February 17, 2007

Flicks: The Color of Money

I never think of Tom Cruise as being old, but seeing him as he started out is wild. Vince is young and cocky and dumb as a post. I was afraid that it would be a rehash of The Hustler, but after enjoying the original so much, I had to see it. It’s definitely not a rehash. It’s another story told in the same dystopian wasteland. No one has anything other than self-interest in mind. The characters are all totally screwed up, but in entirely different ways.

Vince, with his bouffant hair and his machismo, is an idiot. But he’s got talent, which just makes him worse. He doesn’t get the hustle. He doesn’t value his talent. He just wants to beat people at pool, but if he can get some money in the process, so much the better. If Vincent is the innocent in the story, he isn’t by the end of the movie.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s character is a fascinating counterpoint to the original’s Sarah. Instead of trying to save Vince, she’s there to exploit him. She’s cold and hard and understands the hustle far, far better than he does.

Eddie’s life is empty. He’s got money and success and a Cadillac. To say he’s turned into Bert Gordon is a bit too simple, but he’s definitely lost his way. He doesn’t find purpose again until he sees Vince play. It reminds him of what he was, of what he had.

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February 15, 2007

Flicks: Papillon


Good lord, this movie is never going to end. It’s a prison movie, not exactly like The Great Escape except that nearly every prison movie (that isn’t on late night cable) is basically the same. Steve McQueen plays a prisoner that won’t give up trying to escape. The story is more brutal and soul crushing than the other. It includes what seems like an eternity of watching McQueen deteriorate in solitary confinement with little food. Dustin Hoffman co-stars. Maybe I’m just tired, but the whole thing just seemed to meander. Apparently Papillon was a real person who wrote a book about the story, which may explain some of the excess the story contains. I try not to judge older movies by the conventions that didn’t exist at the time, but let’s just say nothing really surprised me in the movie. The relationship between Papillon and Hoffman’s Degas was complicated and interesting, but also seemed to go this way and that with little direction.

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February 12, 2007

Flicks: Dawn of the Dead 2004

Ok. So I think the trend if 70’s/80’s remakes is crap. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, Amityville: it’s all nostalgia all the time. I have no problem with creatively repurposing music, movies, whatever. Great artists steal. Hip-hop has been a part of my life since childhood. I’m all for taking something old and making something entirely new from it. Most of the remakes out these days aren’t doing anything new; they’re just rehashing old stories without adding anything new.

Of course, what’s interesting about the Dawn of the Dead remake is that it seems to have very little to do with the original. The only similarities are in the basic plot: a group hides from zombies in the mall. The most obvious difference is that the zombies are not green. The enormous advances in special effects technology have provided a more lifelike undead. Beyond that, the cast is totally different. There are a lot more refugees in this version and most of them had a lot more depth than anyone in the original.

Mekhi Pfifer did a great job here. He totally cracked up. I don’t know most of the movies he’s been in, but I’ll definitely start looking out for him.

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February 9, 2007

Flicks: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

I’ve never been a big fan of horror movies. I never saw the point. Most of them were schlocky and fake, but that was irrelevant since I had no desire to see more accurate looking gore. Blood and guts have never interested me. I got interested in the zombie movie as a subgenre after seeing 28 Days Later, which kicked all sorts of ass. Totally unlike the cartoonish horror flicks I’d seen before. There was no Freddie or Jason or whatever. It was total fucking Armageddon. The entire world went to shit so far as anyone knew. Zombie flicks are not just about some guy or demon or doll chasing people around with a knife. it’s everybody. You can’t trust or love anyone enough that you wouldn’t put a bullet in him or her when the time comes.

The whole concept blew me away. In 28 Days Later the execution was flawless. Later I saw Shaun of the Dead, which was damned funny. It’s the same idea, but played entirely for laughs. I heard about it when I was in London last year. All through the city, phone booths were covered in posters of zombies trying to escape.

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February 6, 2007

Flicks: Hopscotch

Hardly a classic, but recommended by NetFlix because of the high rating I left 3 Days of the Condor and a couple other spy movies. It’s an old Walter Matthau vehicle, much more of a comedy than, say, the Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which I loved. Hopscotch was amusing as much for its cold war humor as anything else. I enjoyed seeing Sam Waterson so young, although there wasn’t very much to his role.

February 5, 2007

Flicks: 3 Days of the Condor

Redford plays the accidental hero, a bookworm in way over his head. “I read books!” is his mantra. It’s heresy to compare the two, but it reminds me of The Rock. Obviously better, but it’s clear where The Rock and movies like it got their inspiration. Nicholas Cage's wincing and whining about being a lab rat, definitely descend from Redford's character. In the same way, there’s plenty of North by Northwest in there. The intrigue and the betrayals come flying from every corner. Neither the hero nor the viewer has any idea of who to trust.

Of course, Faye Dunaway had much more depth and personality than Eva Marie Saint and Redford’s shaggy hair and panicked demeanor is nothing like Grant. Redford is flawed and disheveled, very smart, but also very scared. Even confused, drunk and kidnapped, Cary Grant’s in full control of himself if nothing else. Redford demonstrates Condor’s braininess in subtle ways. He doesn’t go all MacGuyver left and right making laser canons out of a flashlight and a magnifying glass. Instead, he sprinkles in some locksmith lingo and knows his way around a phone closet.

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February 3, 2007

New Flicks: Ali

I just watched Ali last night. This wasn't a part of the original 'flicks' postings that I'm re-serializing here.

Like those posts, I'm not really reviewing as much as writing my reactions and observations.

The first thing about Ali is that it really did seem to employ nearly every black actor who has ever appeared on screen. I swear everyone was in this movie. Really. Look at the cast list. The black dude from Hackers is in it.

What I notice about the plot is that not a single good thing seems to come to Ali from joining The Nation. I'm going to leave it at that and refrain from expounding on my views on religion. Suffice it to say that NOI appeared to be just another fair weather friend. This is interesting since, the plot of the movie seems to be focused around the changing of his name and his joining NOI. It shows the stands that he took and the sacrifices he made, but little about how he came to join or any way that he benefited from joining. His ideals, his opinions and his personality all seem to be his own, not owed to The Nation or anyone else.

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Flicks: Caddyshack

Wow. The music is terrible. It’s funny, I’ve heard a lot about this movie, but it never occurred to me the ‘plot’ centered on an actual caddy. Of course that’s totally irrelevant when you have Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and Ted Knight hamming it up to full effect. The entire movie is these 4 guys doing schtick. Totally ridiculous.

February 2, 2007

Flicks: The Hustler

Fast Eddie Felson’s entire reason for being was to be the best pool hustler in the country. He’s a great, young warrior who’s come to battle the king for his crown. Minnesota Fats is the old guard and Eddie has to take him down to prove that he’s the best. He tries and fails only to come back better than before. But the ‘character’-building events as he climbs his way back to the top give him a tragic perspective of the game he’s playing. Neither he nor Fats will ever be the king. They will only ever be gladiators fighting to get someone else rich.

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January 29, 2007

Flicks: The Philadelphia Story

I love Cary Grant. I’d never known much about him. He was just a name from old movies to me. Then I actually saw him. First Notorious. Then Charade and North by Northwest. I was blown away. Only Houseboat repelled me. I couldn’t deal with those annoying kids. People talk about the old days when a leading man was someone that men wanted to be and women wanted to be with, but it never made any sense to me. There was no one like that when I was a kid. The leading men of my childhood were just a bunch of schmucks who ran around yelling between explosions. Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger? They have nothing on Cary Grant. Maybe Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise had some personality, but they were never as smooth as Grant. At once comical, clever and virile, regardless of the role or setting, he’s everything the modern male star aspires to, but rarely approaches. According to imdb, Grant turned down the role of James Bond way back when. I was really surprised until I thought about it. Each Bond has only ever tried to be Cary Grant: the confidence, the wisecracks have all been an attempt at the only personality Cary Grant ever projected.

I really enjoyed The Philadelphia Story. Katherine Hepburn was great, I’d never seen any of her films before. She and Grant and Jimmy Stewart made a great combination. It was a typical classic comedy with all the twists and turns one would expect. All the standard characters are there, too. Hepburn plays the sassy rich shrew and Stewart plays the skeptical journalist weary of his tabloid day-job and disgusted with working the high society scene. Also on display are the precocious kid, the old philanderer, and the sardonic assistant (or photographer in this case). Cary Grant, as usual, was Cary Grant.

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January 28, 2007

Flicks: Bullitt

An interesting cop story with some good twists. I had only seen one other Steve McQueen movie, the Great Escape, which I enjoyed. McQueen is the strong, silent type. At least in the two movies I’ve seen him; he wasn’t much of a talker. I can’t think of many actors who have a similar style. Maybe Paul Newman, but I haven’t seen many of his movies. Certainly no contemporary actors are quite so subtle.

Someone had told me how great the car chase was, but I was pretty disappointed. I admit I enjoyed watching them take some of those San Francisco hills at high speed. But the camera spent too much time in the cars. The point of a car chase is not to watch the people in the car glowering at each other, it’s to see them do crazy shit and cause major property damage. I also got very tired of hearing the engines humming. For 10 minutes the whole soundtrack was: “Vroom. Vroooooooom. Vroom. Vroooooom” as they switched back and forth between cars. It was kind of unnecessary, I thought. The French Connection has become my gold standard for car chases. This didn’t get any where close to that to me.

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The Flicks Project

This is not my first blog. I had one ever so briefly a couple years ago. The concept was basically that I'd use my new netflix membership to see famous and influential movies and react to them in the blog. Now that I have a site that I hope to actually update, I figure I'll try again. Below is the introduction to this 'project' I wrote back in ought-five.

The Flicks Project
For years people have been asking me, “you haven’t seen…?” Whether it was the Godfather or Citizen Kane, people have been amazed at my cultural illiteracy. There are dozens of movies in the national culture that I have never seen. I can quote lines from some of them or give you a detailed synopsis, but I’ve never seen it first hand. And I’m the only one. So, I started polling my friends and co-workers. I asked people what movies they generally expected everyone had seen and began my list. I limited it to the 20 year period between 1965 and 1985 to make it manageable. Stars I’ve known for some time did their best work then. Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert Deniro, Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson have all starred in films I’ve seen. But their earliest, and often best, works were entirely unknown to me. The list started out representing some of the most important and influential works in film in the last 40 years. Then I saw a couple older movies. Classics. I’ve come to realize that no list of movies to see would be worth a damn unless I also included Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck… So, the list grew. I worked on it gradually. I saw the Godfathers that mattered, I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But it was only every now and again. The list had grown but I wasn’t getting around to watching them. Now I’ve joined NetFlix. I’ve got 83 movies in my queue and it’s still growing.

Here are my perceptions of the ‘list’ movies as I see them. As a warning, there may be spoilers. These aren’t reviews as such and sometimes I’ll go on and on about striking features of one movie only briefly touching on the plot. One aspect I’ve been interested in lately is the leading man. It’s changed a lot since the 40’s. The idea of what it meant to be a man in the movies and how certain actors worked within those confines is fascinating to me.

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