How did I forget Clint Eastwood?

Dearest Readers (all three of you now after my last pontificating post about the greatest American period of film in the last century)…

My sincere apologies for any omissions or inclusions that I forgot or, better, that you disagree with—I did neglect one movie that is on my top twenty list and should be on yours, too (if you happen to enjoy a good western).

Clint Eastwood’s powerful “The Outlaw Josie Wales," (1976) which in many ways is a precursor to his Oscar-winning, and somewhat more mature "Unforgiven,” which he made 16 years later in 1992.

Josie Wales is a man with a dark and violent past who returns to his roots when his family is murdered. And his quest takes him across the west, seeking revenge and redemption. Eastwood, as Wales, is a spitting, raw, scruffy man who shoots fast and speaks sparingly. In short, a force.

I feel like Eastwood somehow gets overlooked as a director because his acting takes such a prominent place in all his films. He’s finally been recognized in the last two decades with multiple Oscars (all deserved) for his gritty, deliberate style, and for embracing the themes that have always driven him—revenge, human determination, and the desire for community.

"Josie Wales" is one of Eastwood’s best, and I am glad that this blog is a blog and not a book, or else I couldn’t have rectified the error of my ways.

Sincerely,
Avi

The best (American) film period of the 20th century…

(My apologies, dear readers, both of you, for my four-month hiatus…)

So when my colleague began to tell me about “Streammageddon” today (when Netflix loses the rights to some 2,000 movies), he said that it’s not a big deal because “most of the movies are old.”

I beg to differ.

"Old" movies are better movies.

And our conversation then evolved into a heated discussion / debate as to the greatest time period of American cinema (that we are largely familiar with; we are both over 28 and under 36).

My immediate answer? 1967 through 1980.

These thirteen years represent some of the greatest directing and acting work by some of our greatest artists, many of whom are luckily still working today. These years basically take us from “The Graduate," "Midnight Cowboy,” and “Butch Cassidy" in the last of the 60s through to "Raging Bull" and "Ordinary People" in 1980.

Starting with Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock (maybe his greatest role ever) and ending with the explosive Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta, I think these are some good bookends for a collection of genius:

—Scorcese’s best work with “Mean Streets” (1973), “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Bull” (which include a young Joe Pesci); though I do have a soft spot for his later “Color of Money” and “GoodFellas”

—Woody Allen’s classics “Annie Hall” (1977) and “Manhattan” (1979)

—The immortal “Godfather” films from Coppola, part one (1972) and part two (1974), BOTH of which won best picture in their respective years and include perhaps the best work of Pacino and DeNiro (and respectfully, maybe Brando, too)

—Stanley Kubrick’s best are also here, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), the wild “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), and the chilling “The Shining” (1980, and tops for Nicholson, too)

—Not to be forgotten, “Star Wars” (1977) hit the screens as did Milos Forman’s brilliant “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), which is my favorite Nicholson flick (though “Five Easy Pieces” from 1970 is also up there)

—Robert Redford and Paul Newman in the two greatest buddy movies ever: “Butch Cassidy” and “The Sting” (best picture of 1973), both made by often-overlooked director, George Roy Hill

—Finally, throw in Polanski’s genius “Chinatown” (Nicholson - 1974), 1976’s stellar “Network,” “Rocky,” and “All the President’s Men” (Hoffman and Redford), and then 1979’s oscar-winner, “Kramer vs. Kramer” (Hoffman and a young Meryl Streep)

Wow.

So I think my roster makes its case, from the directing to acting to diversity of theme: these years changed American cinema forever.

What do you think?

Searching for Bobby Fischer

The most surprising thing about this fantastic 1993 film all about chess and the dynamics of father/son and teacher/student is that Max Pomeranc, amazing as the 7-year-old real-life chess prodigy, Josh Waitzkin, was never in another major movie again.

I had seen it many years ago, though not since our daughter was born, so it was fascinating to watch again, and especially with her.

Our daughter loved it, and it becomes more and more evident that the movies we watch where a child is in the lead role are the ones she loves the most, so this one was quite perfect.

And it works on multiple levels.

There is so much that goes on at the kids’ level, as Josh runs around in his messy room and floppy high-top sneakers, playing with all kinds of action figures (in addition to his chess brilliance)—you could see my kid processing all of this, how he relates to the other kids in the movie as well as the adults: his father (Joe Mantegna), mother (Joan Allen), and two teachers (a slimmer Laurence Fishburne and a poofy-gray-haired Ben Kingsley—when is he not a powerhouse?).

These same relationships can be also be explored as an adult, including the dynamics between parents, as their children play competitive chess against one another (to which I can relate, as my daughter dances competitively).

But it is the arc of the story and its smooth narrative that makes this film work. Each new evolution and character introduced adds a layer to this ever-complicating world of a boy who really, it seems, just wants to play with his GI Joes.

But Mantegna’s line to Josh’s teacher is key: “My son is better at chess than I have ever been at anything in my whole life.”
(Not surprisingly, the movie is based on the book written by Josh’s real-life father, Fred Waitzkin.)

So to the journey of this boy is added a father’s drive to have his son succeed and, logically, to live his own success through his boy.

Challenging and universal themes, which we all (my wife, myself, and our daughter) could enjoy simultaneously, each in our way, but all together.

Isn’t that one of the keys to a brilliant movie?

Short Circuit

Despite some terrible acting performances and the leading “man” who is a robot, my daughter LOVED this mid-80s flick and continues to quote from it three days later.

Can you believe this movie scored over $40 million bucks at the box office back in 1986?

Me neither.

Okay, maybe I can, because my kid really did love it.

With Steve Guttenberg as Newton Crosby, a scientist who invents and programs robots, and Ally Sheedy, the pet-loving Oregonian, it is “Number 5” the robot who steals the show and gets struck by lightning—and he’s alive!

In fact, he is just like a toddler and needs “input.”

Maybe that’s why the kiddo loved this so much—because like “Number 5” she is constantly seeking answers, consuming books, and trying to figure out how the world works.

Seen through the digital eyes of the robot, the movie is actually the perfect kids’ flick, the same reason she relates to “Annie,” “Mathilda,” and “Curly Sue.”

So fascinating to watch her as she watches the lessons and scenes of the movie unfold, laughing at the antics and genuinely sad when you think the robot has been blown up (“disassembled”) by the security team.

If you’ve never seen this, it is great for the little people. Go for it.

And on to the next movie we go, hoping it lives up to this one…

Point Break

The best commercial surfing movie ever?

Maybe Keanu’s best movie?

And Swayze, of course, as Bodhi, a real “searcher.”

"What’s he searching for?"

"The ride, the ultimate ride."

Wise words.

Movies on a Plane

So what else is there to do on a cross-country flight other than watch movies that you wouldn’t watch in normal life, that is, when you’re not flying through the air in a tiny seat getting butt cramps?

Well, that’s what I did, and while I love Virgin as an airline, their movie choices were lacking a bit (and what’s up the 8 bucks for a movie—really?). I guess that’s how it goes when you’re stuck in the air, they can overcharge you. And I paid anyway.

On the way to the pacific: “21 Jump Street" cause I needed some comic relief that I didn’t think would totally suck.

And guess what? It actually made me laugh out loud a few times.

The slimmed-down Jonah Hill and an oddly effective Channing Tatum were damn good together as ineffective cops but great buddies.

The flick is a remake of the classic TV series and there is a well-timed homage to the show. I also loved Ice Cube (who doesn’t?).

The last twenty minutes or so kind of fall over, but the good news is that the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously—in fact, it makes fun of itself, but in a good way—the filmmakers knew that they wouldn’t succeed unless they modernized and reinvented the concept a bit, and it works with enough laughs to go around.

Of course, I was on a plane.

And because we still have five hours to go on the way back, I opted for something a bit more serious, which seemed like it had promise: Woody Harrelson in a supposed Oscar-worthy performance in a movie I had never heard of (which is often a very bad sign)—”Rampart.”

A wasted $8 on the way back east because I couldn’t even bring myself to finish the movie, and as my wife can attest, I can almost always find something redeeming about any film—not this time.

This one just tries way too hard to be in your face, with tight shots of Woody driving through L.A. as a brutal cop in the “Rampart” division, with a broken family, a drinking problem, and an empty soul.

Seriously I just did not see the point of this one.

You don’t give a hoot about what happens to Woody, and I think you’re supposed to—otherwise, why would he be in basically every scene?

The movie reminded me of another lost man who destroys himself, Nic Cage in the Mike Figgis flick “Leaving Las Vegas,” and yet somehow that one displayed some humanity. This movie fails to do so.

And I watched pre-season football instead (thank goodness it was a Sunday!).

I am off to Denver next week and I hope there are some better selections on those flights—I’d even stomach some bad rom-com compared to the disaster that is “Rampart.”

What’s your favorite plane movie?

Safety Not Guaranteed

Do twenty-somethings still intern at print magazines?

It would seem so, or maybe that’s just what happens in the coolness of Seattle and in this first-time film.

Either way, I’m glad they do, because quirky Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is one of those interns, and she turns this potentially straight-up oddball story into one that is…wait for it…heartfelt and frickin’ geniune.

Mark Duplass (who I know only from dude show all about fantasy football and fart jokes, “The League” — once quipped as “the funniest show ever” by a work buddy of mine) is truly kind of amazing, with moments where you think he’s joking but he’s not, and then when he plays the zither, you just want to enter the screen and follow him on his adventure.

And as I told some friends the other night: I respect original screenplays that succeed, and this one does.

Here’s what I will say: I left the theater smiling.

It didn’t totally make sense, we’re asked to make some pretty big mental leaps, and just when you’re not sure how the whole thing is going to hang together, it does.

The script is imaginative, sharp and witty and has a few laugh-out-loud one-liners, crosses just enough of the boundaries to be funny without really insulting anyone. At least not too much.

Did I mention it’s original? Cause it is.

Plus the title is great—not just as the title of a personal ad placed in a newspaper, but as a movie title, made me want to see it, I did, and now I might need to go see it again because all these message boards are saying that I missed something and of course the ending (which I won’t reveal) happens as it does because there is some sort of hint halfway through the movie…

And it’s worth the $11 to go back in. Because they make you care about these funky characters, even if you didn’t think you would when the movie started.

You’ll be glad you did.

The Newest Woody, In Love with Rome

Don’t they say that even when you eat bad pizza, it’s still good?

Well, Woody Allen (or Isaac Davis) once said that even his worst orgasm was “right on the money.”

I agree.

And even though Woody’s latest film, “To Rome with Love,” is far from his best, and probably somewhere in the middle of the pack in his larger body of work, it was still enjoyable—at least I thought so.

The problem, of course, is that standards are so very high every time you see his movies (at least for me, and I believe I speak for my wife as well).

Oh the blasted curse of success!

Once you’ve seen his greatest works (“Annie Hall” “Manhattan” “Crimes and Misdemeanors”) and even his A- films (“Another Woman” “Hannah and Her Sisters” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”…just to name a few), you expect to be entertained, to be thrilled, to be showered with witty hilarity that will leave you recounting great lines and shaking your head with the knowledge that there is no other like him.

So when he fails to deliver those goods, you’re a little disappointed.

But still, I somehow feel like it’s right on the money.

Or at least what you get is a helluvalot better than most of the American garbage being pumped out today (I have no real data to go on here, just my personalized opinion on the state of the American film industry).

If there is a story in “Rome,” it is really just the inter-connected stories of a collection of semi-random characters, showcasing some great acting work by Jessie Eisenberg, Alec Baldwin (yes, I liked him in this role), and the ever-lovely Penelope Cruz as an Italian hooker (oh yes).

I didn’t much care for Ellen Page, but you can be the judge of that (I think she peaked with “Juno,” which is unfortunate.

Should you see it?

Probably only if you are a Woody devotee (like me).

But I contend it’s still better than most of the crap out there.

And Rome is so worth, who wouldn’t fall in love with it?

Win Win

I am in a movie drought. I admit it. I haven’t seen a movie from start to finish in many weeks.

Something’s gotta give.

So I guess I have to dig into the memory bank for a flick that is worth recommending to you, dear reader.

My colleague travel companion asked me about “Win Win" on the train yesterday because I am known as a guy who watches a lot of movies and it was next up on her Netflix queue and I had almost forgotten about it: a little indie gem of a film by Thomas McCarthy (his first as a director was "The Station Agent" — you should see that one, too, and yes, it’s the one with the midget—Peter Dinklage).

This one is a small film in a small town. It has a small collection of characters and you come to know all of them, some a bit more than others.

But (forgive the cliche) it has a big heart.

No, really, it does.

The interactions between family and friends and friends of friends are REAL, people struggling to get through, raise a family, do good.

The story centers around Mike Flaherty (played by the great Paul Giamatti—is he ever bad?), a struggling lawyer who coaches the local high school wrestling team and takes in Kyle, the bleach-haired, troubled young man who soon displays his prodigious talents as a wrestler and eventually causes Mike and his family to rebuild and discover what matters.

Kyle, played by newcomer Alex Shaffer, is a newcomer, never acted before, but he has wrestled, winning the New Jersey state championship.

I heard an interview with McCarthy when the movie first came out and he said he knew that he needed a real wrestler and he found one—fortunately, Alex is a blossoming actor and he plays his role perfectly. He also brings realism to the wrestling scenes, which are key to the narrative.

So it’s time to move this one to the top of your Netflix queue, or at least top three.

Hope you enjoy.

Haywire

Many years ago I came out of the closet regarding my big like (but not quite love) of Steven Soderbergh.

He is firmly in the upper-range of the second-tier of American directors of cinema.

Hitchcock, Scorsese, Coppola, Woody Allen, Robert Altman—these guys are great (I welcome dissension from the readership)—but Soderbergh, like David Fincher I believe, are one (maybe two) brilliant movie(s) from being great.

That is not to say that these guys don’t demonstrate some greatness in their filmmaking—they do—but they have not done so over a number of films with varying stylistic and thematic greatness (and any way you slice it, “Erin Brockovich,” for which Stevie was nominated for an Oscar, was not his best work).

Soderbergh’s latest, “Haywire,” is not his best either, but it reflects why I like him so much: you know, straight away, that it’s his movie.

The narrative is delivered to us, smartly, out of order, filling in the pieces, keeping us wondering, until we reach the present.

Many of the scenes have sneaky music that you know feels like him, just like you now know a Fincher movie when you see it and hear it.

And some of the scenes have no music at all—which is striking and effective.

There are plenty of trick shots but they don’t really seem out of place or forced even though a few of them are forced—you don’t really care because the narrative moves along so nicely that you keep wanting to know how this badass movie of a movie will come to a conclusion.

He gets some big-time actors to play great and to play small side roles: Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Bill Paxton (okay, he’s not really big time).

He casts a totally unknown woman in the lead, who is expected to kick the absolute crap out of a series of men in hand-to-hand combat literally all across the world—from Barcelona to Berlin to New Mexico.

And so, this is an action flick, not great, but great enough: with the wit and pace of “Out of Sight” with sequences that rival the “Bourne” movies and with a woman in the lead who carries the movie.

Well done, Steven, we know you can do this: next time, though, take a risk.

PS: I have not written about movie night recently because we have been swallowed up by “Harry Potter” fever and have been forced to watch all of the movies, in order. Hallelujah.