Category Archives: Actor

Friends with Money (2006)

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s film Friends with Money analyzes a very particular dynamic—that of being a luckless and careerless lonely girl (Jennifer Aniston) in an L.A. circle of friends (Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, and Joan Cusack) who are all married and rich. Seems preposterous, given the casting, but nobody in this country uses as sympathetic a microscope as Holofcener when examining the conundrums of modern women, and Aniston is convincing and sad. With Jason Isaacs.

Friends with Money
Friends with Money (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Erin Brockovich (2000)

A film designed to win its star an Oscar if there ever was one, Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich sets up Julia Roberts as a working-class single-mom heroine for the oppressed, legally battling corporate giant Pacific Gas and Electric on behalf of the scores of poor locals who have endured decades of tumors and other illnesses thanks to the illegal use and dumping of poisonous chemicals. Filthy with character details and robust righteousness, the film is also notable for its dismissal of love and even parenthood in favor of doing justice, fighting the good fight, and working your ass off at something you believe in.

The Graduate (1967)

A generational emblem more than a movie, the Mike Nichols classic The Graduate captures the essence of alienation and social incompleteness as only films made in the late 1960s and early 1970s can. Dustin Hoffman became a star in the unlikeliest of circumstances: as an aimless college grad who cannot get a fix on what he wants out of life. He is seduced by a family friend (Anne Bancroft), and is then pressured into dating her daughter (Katharine Ross); as life gets more complicated, he searches madly for any reason at all to choose one destiny over another. Credit is due to 1967 audiences, who saw themselves in this ambivalent portrait, and who dared to ask big questions of themselves and their movies. Picture, if you can, the new millennium’s freshly graduated degree-holders facing the same choice.

Graduateposter67.jpg

The Thin Red Line (1998)

The Thin Red Line (1964 film)
The Thin Red Line (1964 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The year’s true World War II masterpiece,  The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s comeback film (after a twenty-year hiatus from filmmaking) takes place during and around the battle of Guadalcanal, but is in reality far more concentrated on the emotional experience of battle and the impact, poetically invoked here, of human warfare upon individuals and upon nature. Essentially a three-hour, nonnarrative experiment, there are no main characters—just an ensemble of thirty or more figures—and there’s no story—just impressions, experiences, feelings (the complex weft of narrative voices often do not synch up with on-screen personas), and astonishing images. Oh, yeah—it’s based on James Jones’s 1962 novel, though you’d never know it. Lots of stars packed in: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, Jim Caviezel, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, Jared Leto, and Miranda Otto.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The first and more orthodox World War II war film of 1998, Steven Spielberg’s heroic yarn Saving Private Ryan follows a troop of assorted all-American types through the European theater on what seems to them to be a fool’s mission: retrieving a soldier (Matt Damon) from battle after his brothers are killed elsewhere. Tom Hanks rings true as an unlikely macho commander, and the opening D-Day sequence is justly famous for being gut-twisting. With Edward Burns and Tom Sizemore.

Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson, a telepathic boy, an empty hotel, an axe. And oh, so much more—Stanley Kubrick’s landmark boo-fest rewards repeat viewings like a slot machine, from the awful sound of the kid’s Big Wheel on those silent corridor carpets to the beautiful naked ghost in the bathtub to Lloyd the saturnine bartender, fueling the animal for a night of mad havoc. The Shining is as much a hair-raising exploration of writer’s block, wintertime claustrophobia, and paternal impatience as it is a whacked-out horror flick—and it does run amuck in its own ozone. If little else, it’ll surely cure you of the notion that getting genuinely snowed in within a cavernous resort hotel might be fun or restorative, but being trapped at home with this dilly can electrify a cold, dull afternoon. If you can’t already quote at least half a dozen lines (“Give me the bat, Wendy . . .”), you need to catch up with the rest of America. All work and no play, indeed. With Shelley Duvall, Joe Turkell, and Scatman Crothers.

Jack Nicholson in the famous “Here’s Johnny” scene
Jack Nicholson in the famous “Here’s Johnny” scene (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Awful Truth (1937)

A movie about a couple in the midst of a divorce may seem an odd choice for an anniversary movie, but this is the antiromantic romance, marriage as ping-pong, and one of the preeminent screwball comedies. Director Leo McCarey and timeless stars Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are virtually without peer in handling sparkling dialogue. Even when they’re actively destroying each other’s lives in bouts of schadenfreude, they’re entertaining—and the characters (embodying 1930s Hollywood’s excellent idea of a healthy marriage) are just as addictively entertaining to each other, as well. The Awful Truth isn’t the choice for couples who want to moon at each other over candlelight, but if you’ve seen enough road to find laughs at each other’s expense, it’s essential viewing.

Cover of "The Awful Truth"
Cover of The Awful Truth

Queen Christina (1933)

Arguably the definitive Greta Garbo film—the epitome of her lush melodramas, made by inventive visual artist Rouben Mamoulian and costarring John Gilbert, Garbo’s old love, whose floundering talkie career Garbo tried to boost. The couple’s rueful circumstances alone make Queen Christina a swoon-worthy prize (Gilbert, an alcoholic whom Garbo had left literally standing at the altar years before, died of heart failure three years after making this film). But the story is a tragic daydream version of the eponymous Swedish monarch, resisting arranged international marriage and falling for Gilbert’s Spanish emissary. Surprisingly sexy, poetic, and, in the end, devastating.

Cropped screenshot of Greta Garbo from the tra...
Cropped screenshot of Greta Garbo from the trailer for the film Queen Christina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Road to Perdition (2002)

An overproduced Oscar bid for both director Sam Mendes and star Tom Hanks, the gangster saga Road to Perdition (based on a Max Allen Collins graphic novel) about a mobster and his son taking revenge on his own clan is rather stale, but again, the money spent on recreating a rainy, sepia 1930s pays off.

Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall set up atmosphe...
Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall set up atmospheric lighting similar to that found in the paintings of Edward Hopper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Topper (1937)

If you’ve been wondering why in this day and age, when Hollywood seems to be doing nothing but recycling old movies, no one has thought to remake Topper, consider this: it’s essentially a story in which driving drunk at breakneck speed around dangerous curves with your feet on the steering wheel of a convertible is seen as not just funny, but also as a paradigm for living the good life. Party animals George and Marian Kerby (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, bouncing screwball dialogue like Ping-Pong champs) become ghosts because of such antics, and they soon learn they’ve got a pretty short resume for applying for residence in Heaven. They set out to do a good deed: loosening up repressed bank president Cosmo Topper (Roland Young), who is henpecked by his propriety-conscious wife and who leads as dull a life as you can imagine. A kind of morality-tale act of retribution on Roaring Twenties hedonism, Topper is also completely 1930s in its battery of platinum blondes in slinky sequined evening dresses, men in tuxes and top hats driving roadsters, bankers in fedoras, and dancing in nightclubs.

Pat and Mike (1952)

Cover of "The Hepburn & Tracy Signature C...
Cover via Amazon

Katharine Hepburn is a pro golfer, Spencer Tracy is her promoter, and Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon’s screenplay gives them helping after helping of gender-combat banter, on and off the course (we’re treated to the sight of Hepburn herself, in a championship game, hitting against legendary real-life pro Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who was the subject of the 1975 TV movie Babe). Pat and Mike is perhaps the best of the Hepburn-Tracy comedies—because here, Tracy doesn’t always get the upper hand.

Raising Arizona (1987)

Joel and Ethan Coen’s second film, and a wild-eyed, Rube Goldberg riot, as Southern-fool marrieds Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, unable to have babies of their own (“Her insides were a rocky place,” Cage’s dopey felon bemoans in an unforgettable narration, “where my seed could find no purchase.”), kidnap one from a set of quintuplets. From there, Raising Arizona is a veritable Road Runner cartoon revolving around the infant’s essentially irresistible baby-ness, and there are enough character-rich hee-haws for ten movies. The urgent matter of getting your hands on some Huggies in the worst of circumstances was never made so thrilling.

Being John Malkovich (1999)

Perhaps the closest a Hollywood movie has ever gotten—and probably will ever get—to the free-associative shotgun spray of Salvador Dali’s and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, this first film by the team of director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is an ingenious, incredibly entertaining, Rorschach blot of a metacomedy.  The primary metaphoric vehicle of Being John Malkovich is a mysterious, slimy tunnel that leads directly from a small door in an obsolete office building into the consciousness of actor John Malkovich. After fifteen minutes spent in Malkovich’s head, however, tunnel travelers are interdimensionally chucked out onto the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike, but the orgasmic thrill of living inside Malkovich’s skull  spurs the characters (including office clerk and formerly unemployed puppeteer John Cusack, his frumpy—yes, frumpy—wife, Cameron Diaz, and sultry business chick Catherine Keener) to repeat the experience and steer Malkovich’s actions into fulfilling their sexual fantasies.  Charlie Sheen shows up, as himself, blabbering about “hot lesbian witches!”

Being John Malkovich
Being John Malkovich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Little Big Man (1970)

Director Arthur Penn (of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde fame) was never a subtle craftsman, and this shticky yet intelligent rendition of Thomas Berger’s big, absurdist farce Little Big Man fit him like a glove. Dustin Hoffman plays a 121-year-old man who claims to have been everywhere and witnessed everything, from the death of Wild Bill Hickok to Custer’s Last Stand.

 

Little Big Man (film)
Little Big Man (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

High Fidelity (2000)

In this adaptation of Nick Hornby’s farcically self-pitying novel High Fidelity, John Cusack plays a going-nowhere record store owner and pop-music obsessive who, after his latest relationship collapses, takes the viewer on a tour of his past romances. With Jack Black and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Cover of "High Fidelity"
Cover of High Fidelity

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Wes Anderson‘s stop-motion terrarium-movie, loosely based on an old Roald Dahl story, is a fast-talking, zesty riot, in which the eponymouse George Clooney-voiced egomaniac hero jeopardizes his tabletop country’s animal denizens by stepping outside of his tamed middle-class life and succumbing to his essential fox-ness. Kids will be dazzled in an analogue kind of way – it’s made of handheld toys more convincingly than the sheeny Toy Story films – and parents will be struck be its grown-up comic timing and the fact that, unlike other films of its kind, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a film that remembers but does not mourn childhood, in all of its cobbled-together, dirt-digging, plan-hatching dizziness. With Meryl Streep.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (film)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

The gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America  as fractured opium daydream, tripping back and forth in the skull of a Jewish hood (Robert De Niro) until the past, present, and future more or less mush into a mournful opera of betrayal and guilt. Along for the pageant: James Woods as a weaselly cohort, pre-Downton Abbey Elizabeth McGovern as the trollop that got away, Tuesday Weld as a decaying slattern, and Joe Pesci as an unlucky rival. Directed by Sergio Leone, the man that made Clint Eastwood famous in A Fistful of Dollars, this reckless monstrosity spends its plot, characters, and themes like a drunken sailor: settle for nothing less than the nearly-four-hour version, but even then, the film can barely contain so much stuff. 1890s New York childhoods, teenage hookers, Prohibition, hits, rapes, backstabbings, lost love—Leone left nothing out, making this the buddy elegy flip side to The Godfather’s familial moan. With, ironically enough, one of Ennio Morricone’s most heartfelt scores.

The Fortune (1975)

The Fortune
The Fortune (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the best and wittiest of the comedies made during the 1970s ”look back in fondness” craze, Mike Nichols’s The Fortune —about a pair of nitwits (Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson) who attempt to murder ditzy heiress Stockard Channing—is so summer-before-the-Crash hazy that the cinematography itself seems light-headed with humidity. The 1920s atmosphere is all sun, white linen, old convertibles, improperly paved country roads, palm trees, and screwball, like a Gatsby scenario with its pants down.

The Mosquito Coast (1986)

Well, this’ll take the cake: if your dad is Harrison Ford, and he strands you and your family on a Central American jungle coastline so you can create paradise away from the evils of society, then you’ve won the Worst Vacation Ever sweepstakes handily. In The Mosquito Coast, Ford is fascinatingly out of character as a deluded utopian, and director Peter Weir knows how to turn the screws.

The Mosquito Coast
The Mosquito Coast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Key Largo (1948)

The John Huston film noir based on the Maxwell Anderson play and set, imperatively, on the titular Florida island in the off-season and during a typhoon. A gaggle of gangsters (led by Edward G. Robinson’s sadistic kingpin) find themselves trapped with a handful of honest victims, including Humphrey Bogart’s disillusioned war vet. Claire Trevor won an Oscar as a weepy lush, and though the film is filthy with hard-boiled dialogue and character, its hothouse atmosphere of Key Largo is irresistible. With Lauren Bacall.

Bogart and Bacall interviewed during World War II
Bogart and Bacall interviewed during World War II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Rookie (2002)

The true tale of Jim Morris, a middle-aged high school science teacher who loses a bet with his students, tries out for the majors, and makes it. Though The Rookie was advertised as a kids’ movie, the script never condescends or collapses into silliness, and Morris’s tale is genuinely warming. Americans love the triumph of the underdog against all odds (and what’s more intimidating than growing old?), and The Rookie doesn’t disappoint in this regard: who would believe that a thirty-five-year-old rookie could throw a hundred miles per hour?

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)

Could this be the saddest baseball movie ever? Coming from a 1955 novel, this subdued, grown-up drama simply waits out the last season of a low-IQ MLB catcher (Robert De Niro), who learns at the outset that he has a fatal disease. Emphasis is placed less on mortality or the game, and more on the day-to-day traveling life of pro players in the days before bazillion-dollar contracts and steroids. Viewers who were moved when Bang the Drum Slowly came out—and it’s tough not to be when the catcher, in his last game, looks for a fly ball that’s no longer there—keep it close to their hearts.

 

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

There may be people who love this weepiest of sports-legend biopics simply because they’re fans of Gary Cooper, or because they’re hardcore Yankee fans who’ll see any movie with the team’s name in the title, but let’s face it: most of us still get a lump in the throat at the sound of Lou Gehrig (or Cooper doing Gehrig), intoning into the ballpark’s vast echo, “Today-ay-ay, I consider myself-elf-elf the luckiest man-man-man on the face of the earth-earth-earth.” Most of us heard Cooper say it before we’d heard Gehrig (if we’ve heard Gehrig at all), and if the Iron Horse is still a universally beloved ballplayer, Pride of the Yankees has fostered that worship. Because it’s baseball, and it’s the movies, it’s not surprising that the legend supplants the original in the public consciousness. Cooper portrays Gehrig as a lovable, innocent bumbler: witness the earnest clumsiness as he wipes out on a pile of bats; the missed ball when wife-to-be Eleanor (the still underappreciated Teresa Wright) bestows a smile upon him; the aw-shucks waves to the roaring crowd. For millions of Americans, in the war years and after, this movie was a collective dream of baseball, in which a poor immigrant’s son can triumph and live a heroic life in the most democratic of sports. The movie leaves Gehrig at his final field appearance, sparing us the trial of his struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Who’d argue that this isn’t as it should be? Does the film depict Gehrig as he really was? Of course not. Baseball fans love the game’s stories, names, stats, and legacies, and this is their Achilles tale, their Greek tragedy. Those same fans know, too, that this film offers opportunities to witness once-living legends Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey, Mark Koenig, Bob Meusel, and announcer Bill Stern, playing themselves.

English: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at United St...
English: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at United States Military Academy, West Point, NY (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Heat (1995)

Heat (1995 film)
Heat (1995 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Mann’s epic tale of cops and robbers, Heat weaves multiple stories into its Robert De NiroAl Pacino “last of the hard men” struggle, but it is also very much an L.A. story; the city is captured in all its smoggy sprawl, glamour, economic disparity, freeway craziness, and industry. Likewise, Mann’s Collateral (2004) hits the same note (while driving around with Tom Cruise’s contract killer and Jamie Foxx’s cabbie), but with a difference: because it’s shot in digital video, you see the lit city at night, partially illuminated by smog-reflected neon, like never before. With Val Kilmer.

The Big Easy (1987)

The most New Orleans–ified film ever made, The Big Easy is tipsy on everything that made the pre-Katrina hub famous: sunlit bayous, dancing at Tipitina’s, voodoo in Storyville, Mardi Gras floats, institutional corruption, and an overall Cajun flavor so palpable you can taste the pepper in the gumbo. In addition to providing an authentic N’Awlins feel and foot-tapping creole-Cajun-zydeco soundtrack, this flavorful Jim McBride movie also offers Dennis Quaid’s irresistible grin (in its way as life-loving as the city’s reputation), and a foreplay scene (with Ellen Barkin) that just doesn’t quit, no matter how many repeated viewings (ahem) some of us may sneak.

The Big Easy (film)
The Big Easy (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)