Friday, May 01, 2015

Encores in Store

Once again, I’m going to billboard some of the tried-and-true movies that hold up, decade in, decade out. As usual, an estimate of how many times I've seen each title is at the end of each entry.

Prizzi’s Honor (1985). Director John Huston’s last great film, up there in the pantheon with The African Queen and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The story of two Mafia killers, a man and a woman, who end up in a romantic relationship and who sacrifice all for their careers. Contemporary critics saw this as a yuppie satire, and that’s valid, but the film has long since transcended the Eighties milieu. The killers, played by Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner, handle the black humor admirably and keep you guessing about their real intent, partly because even they don’t know what choices they’re going to make. Angelica Huston, in one of her many brilliant turns, plays the third party in this love triangle, if love triangle it is. And William Hickey, as the old Don Prizzi, is viciously hilarious as a vampiric debt-settler who knows blood has to be paid. Around 5 times.

The Time Machine (1960). H. G. Wells’ staple has been done to death on film, but one version stands way out from a dismal pack. One of my favorite sf films, this one won’t make many critics’ lists of great ones because it lacks the gravitas of 2001 and Blade Runner, but it’s tops as a popcorn movie. “Something for the whole family” doesn’t mean suds here, just a topnotch story, plenty of thrills and trippy visuals. Though not as substantial as the two sf films just mentioned, it does have some deep scenes. One is where the main character, H.G. Wells, watches the decades fly by in his time machine, only to see war after war as if on some demented film loop. The picture of a pacifist in the wilderness is profound in its understatement. So is Wells’ discovery of the lollygagging Eloi’s abandonment of learning. That Wells later teaches the Eloi to fight shows that the film is incoherent in some unavoidable ways, but it’s still a fun ride that makes some lasting points despite itself. Have fun, be prepared to be philosophically disturbed, but don’t pay too much attention. Speaking of fun, the creakily endearing special effects somehow avoid the dated curse that most fx eventially fall prey to. About 10 times, which shows I don’t get hung up about contradictions too much.

 Paper Moon (1973). I’ve already written on our blogsite about the novel by the same name this movie’s based on. The author is Joe David Brown from Birmingham and it’s a corker. The movie is also a pleasure. Starring real-life father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal as an adult/child (and presumably father/daughter) grifter team during the Depression, it was a deserved hit, and won Tatum O’Neal the Oscar for Supporting Actress even though she had more lines than her dad, who is no slouch and much fun to watch. Madeline Kahn is plain terrific as the treacly, slutty Miss Trixie Delight (last two adjectives perhaps redundant). And the third part of a …not a love triangle, but third part of a MacGuffin that keeps the plot humming along and the humor buoyant. Ripping people off has never been more of a hoot. Roughly 8 times.

Chinatown (1974). This and the last entry are proof that the Seventies really were the Second Golden Age of American film. There has never been a better screenplay in U.S. or world cinema than Robert Towne’s Chinatown. With the current California drought in the news, this story of L.A. water wars is, if anything, more relevant now than it was in 1974. A sort of anti-Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Chinatown was a product of the cynical Seventies of Watergate. But themes of loss and frustration in the face of corruption reveal a film with heart despite itself. Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes tries to set things right and screws up almost everything, which somehow makes his efforts all the more believable. Roman Polanski’s best film to date also stars Faye Dunaway in one of her most indelible roles. Jerry Goldsmith’s score deftly marries lush Hollywood romanticism and avant experimentalism. John Huston as the diabolical Noah Cross exemplifies lived-in evil. James Hong does more with five or six lines than many actors can do with fifty. Every time I see this movie I discover new facets, new details, new undercurrents. Now I’ll stop the hosannas and let you watch. About 10 times.

Richard Grooms
Fiction Department / Southern History Department

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