You know how resolutions go. In January everything is steaming right along, hunky dory. So, it doesn’t surprise me that my recent movie resolution is off to a speedy start. My initial resolution had me paced to watch a little over a movie a week. In the first two weeks of the year, I have already managed to watch ten, even with a longer than usual work trip impeding my progress.
This early stretch is easy, as I am ticking off the ones easily available on streaming services. I know that, come WSOP time this summer, I am going to inevitably grind to a halt thanks to long work hours and a lack of readily available titles on the list. But rather than look ahead with a sense of dread and foreboding, I thought I would update my progress and my thoughts on what I have seen so far:
1. The Lady Eve
I am never one to dive into the pool. I am a wader, easing my way in on the shallow end of the water. So, it should come as no surprise that I started with a flick square in my wheelhouse. This screwball comedy featuring the endearing Henry Fonda and the sharp-tongued Barbara Stanwyck in a story that, in many ways, is a poker movie. Stanwyck’s character is a professional card sharp, though she and her father tend to swindle their competitors more than outplay them. Fonda looks like an easy mark, but, of course, love gets in the way. Then, the movie turns into a comical version of a revenge story that ends most satisfyingly. I don’t want to give away the twists and turns of the plot, but trust me that if you enjoy screwball romances, this is one of the best of them.
2. Cool Hand Luke
Funny that I go from one poker-adjacent movie to another. I didn’t realize the title came from the film’s sole poker scene until I read Hard-Boiled Poker’s piece on the film a couple of year’s back. I’ve avoided this movie for years because it has a lot of red flags for me. The era it is made in is far from my favorite in cinema history. I knew it was an “anti-hero” type of story, which is a genre I’ve never found terribly appealing. And, terrible as it is to say, so many of my friends who cite movies I really can’t stand as their favorites tend to have this one on their list.
In other words, I went into this one braced for the worst.
Now, I will admit this was better than I thought it would be, but I still wouldn’t put it in my personal pantheon. The first half had my interest piqued based almost entirely on Newman’s charisma and charm, but the story stalled in the middle for me, as the series of escape attempts drug on for quite a while. The movie redeemed itself with its stellar ending, but it took a bit too long to get there for my tastes.
One final note–George Kennedy won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Dragline, and deservedly so. I love discovering character actors of days of yore and this is a guy I am going to seek out in the future.
3. This is Spinal Tap
Have you ever seen a comedy that you admire, but don’t necessarily laugh at? You find yourself thinking, “Oh, how clever,” but not chuckling? This is how I felt about this seminal mockumentary. I mostly blame my lack of interest in rock music for not emotionally appreciating the incredibly smart efforts of this flick as much as I appreciated them intellectually. But not gonna lie, tiny Stone Henge and the puppet theater at the amusement park were pretty awesome.
4. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
This movie was one that elicited quite a few responses along the lines of, “How have you not seen that?” Here is the explanation: My dad passed away when I was nine (1992), leaving a house full of girls. My mother did not allow me to watch any rated R movies until I was 14 or so, though if I had been allowed to watch them sooner, I can’t imagine her or anyone else close to me bringing this movie to my awareness. We were not an action movie family. I saw Die Hard when I was 20, and only then because I was required to for a job. Most pure action flicks of the 80s and 90s bearing R ratings have fallen under my radar over the years.
So, I went into this sequel having not seen the original, but having a simple understanding of the plot. The movie was enjoyable enough. It went along at a steady clip, the relationship between Schwarzenegger and young John Conner (Edward Furlong) was quite enjoyable, and the effects held up remarkably well. The same cannot be said of the hairstyles of this movie, which come off as a time capsule of all that was follicly wrong in 1991.
I also have to point out that the use of Linda Hamilton’s voice over narration is some of the worst VO in film history. She begins the film with a LOTR-esque prologue about the machines, then the VO (and Hamilton for that matter) are not really present in the first half of the film. Then, apropos of nothing, we hear her inner monologue, which continues through the rest of the film.
The problem with this is two-fold. One, you can tell that this is a classic case of the screenplay not clearly conveying the plot or ideas of the film, leaving Cameron with no other choice but to drop in VO to clarify and speed up the plot. Two, unlike the original, this is not Linda Hamilton’s movie. This is John Connor’s movie. So, if we are going to hear the inner monologue of anybody that is not a robot, it seems unusual to have anyone but the young boy narrate the action.
5. Harold and Maude
When people talk about Citizen Kane, they often say they don’t love the film, but they respect its impact on cinema, namely the innovative cinematography. This is how I feel about cult classic Harold and Maude. I appreciate that it opened the door for a lot of movies I really enjoy like Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite, and Heathers to name a few. Perhaps it is because I have seen so many manic pixie dream girls and death-obsessed adolescents that this movie bored me and felt very tired. That isn’t the film’s fault. It preceded all these movies, its existence made them possible. And like I said, I appreciate it for doing that, but that is about all I appreciate about this counterculture classic.
6. Atlantic City
When perusing the list of 400 movies, this one baffled me a bit. I never really hear people talk about it. I didn’t really know anything about the story. After watching it, I understand why people don’t really talk about. It isn’t particularly memorable. Like Harold and Maude, it is a movie that brings together two people whose paths might not cross otherwise and their lives change as a result. This is one of those films where I find myself so disinterested in what happens to anybody, that I just can’t get into it. The director, Louis Malle, is best known as part of the French New Wave, so it isn’t surprising this is a character study. Unlike some of his other films like Au Revoir Les Enfants though, these are characters I don’t want to get to know at all.
7. The Kid
I thought the 1970s would be the biggest gap on my list, but that isn’t the case. There are a host of silent films I haven’t gotten around to yet and this Chaplin classic is one of them. I am thankful to check it off my list. This simple story was heartwarming, funny, suspenseful, and entertaining. It really illustrates how Chaplin was so much more than a comedian. His ability to bring soul and humanity to his films is remarkable. Plus, having a kid as adorable as Jackie Coogan as a sidekick doesn’t hurt when it comes to getting laughs and tugging at the heartstrings.
8. A Night at the Opera
Now I have always enjoyed The Marx Brothers. When I see clips of them, I chuckle and awe at their impeccable comic timing. However, their movies have slipped through the cracks over the years. I’ve made efforts to correct this prior to this year. Last year I checked both Duck Soup and A Night in Casablanca off my list. I enjoyed them both, but this one is my favorite for many of the reasons people tend to knock it as inferior to the troupe’s earlier works. This story is anchored with a traditional romantic plot, which helps to break up the frenetic pace of the comedic scene pieces. Throw in some amazing operatic singing from Allan Jones and, to me, you have a more well-rounded picture than the other Marx Brothers works. The downside though is that you don’t have Zeppo.
9. The Great Escape
Part of the problem with Netflix is that it prominently displays the running times of movies when you browse. So, when you see the words “2 hours 53 minutes”, you tend to scroll right by. My unwillingness to devote three hours to a movie resulted in me missing out on what was my favorite film of the past two weeks. I am a sucker for ensemble movies and war movies, so this was unsurprisingly a home run. The three hour running time felt like nothing, as I was engrossed by the likes of James Garner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and a young Richard Attenborough whose oft-used looks of shock and concern never seemed to grow old to me. It is an entertaining, uplifting romp with a little something for everyone. It is the kind of movie I wish we made more of these days.
I will say my love for this does have one caveat: while it is an incredible movie, it is oddly not my favorite of the relatively small POW genre. Bridge on the River Kwai is in my all-time top ten and I think the artistic and thematic merits of it have The Great Escape beat. In terms of entertainment value, they are both top notch though. Come to think of it, the POW genre is an exceptionally strong sub-genre. If you haven’ seen Billy Wilder’s dark comedy Stalag-17 with William Holden, it ranks with these two in terms of quality, and led to the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, though it never gets the same amount of attention.
10. The General
If you have never seen a Buster Keaton picture, you are doing yourself a disservice. While I admire Chaplin greatly, I find myself more drawn to Keaton’s work, in particular the inventive and delightful Sherlock Jr.
Unlike Sherlock Jr, The General is not much of a comedy. While there are some Keaton pratfalls, the movie is, by and large, one giant train chase. As a result, it does tend to drag, but for those who suggest that silent films are lacking from a technical perspective should watch this late-era silent movie if only to see just how advanced they really were. This movie has some seriously impressive effects, including a climactic train/bridge scene that rivals Bridge on the River Kwai in terms of realism.
It is also a humorous reminder about how much insurance has changed the movie-making game. Keaton spends much of the film pulling off what had to be extraordinarily dangerous train stunts that I am sure no superstar today would be willing to attempt.
I didn’t love this movie, though I am glad to have seen it. It is worth pointing out though that the version I watched had a very unpleasant score. As is the case with many silent films that did not have a set score back in the day, contemporary prints add on music to accompany the images. This particular score was anachronistic to the point of distraction. Riddled with synthesizers, it really affected my viewing experience in a negative way, that I would almost advise putting the TV on mute and putting on a ragtime CD instead.
It has been a diverse couple of weeks for me, with some huge hits and unfortunate misses. On the whole, I am enjoying this project more than expected so far. The unexpected treasures are outweighing the duds, and even the duds are helping to broaden my understanding of film history, which was the whole goal of this in the first place.