peter hanson's field guide to interesting film
“Gabriel Over the White House” (1933). If you think that early episodes of “The West Wing” represented a wish-fulfillment vision of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, then brace yourself for this audacious Depression-era parable. The always-entertaining Walter Huston plays Judson Hammond, a political hack chief executive who abuses his position in a shockingly cavalier manner until a near-death experience brings about a change of heart. After being (literally) touched by an angel, Hammond cleans up corruption in Washington and the rest of the country with ruthless efficiency, ordering the jailing of sleazy businessmen and the speedy execution of mobsters. He’s more avenger than messiah, and part of the jaw-dropping interest of this film is seeing what it would look like if a single person of conscience could (again, literally) solve all of the world’s problems by his own hand. Even though the picture is saddled with a standard-issue romantic subplot involving two of Hammond’s underlings, the brisk pacing, nervy visuals, and outrageous plotting turn “Gabriel Over the White House” into a singular experience that puts a whole new spin on the concept of the imperial presidency.
"Galaxy Quest" (1999). A wicked spoof of the cult surrounding "Star Trek," "Galaxy Quest" also works quite nicely as an adventure story all its own. When the jaded actors who starred in the short-lived show "Galaxy Quest" get recruited to help fight real space aliens, they're forced to realize the impact of their much-maligned TV endeavors. The setup is that simple, so the grace notes are all in the execution. Tim Allen plays an egotistical leading man to the hilt, Alan Rickman imbues his classically trained thespian with Sisyphean anguish, and Sigourney Weaver speaks for every starlet desperate to escape typecasting. Even with that potent trio leading the charge, three supporting players steal the show at regular intervals: Enrico Colantoni, Sam Rockwell, and Tony Shalhoub realize their eccentric parts with touching humanity and riotous humor. The plotting is a bit on the tidy side, leading to a wimpy midsection dragged down by an uninteresting villain, but the first and third acts of this piece represent the apex of a certain kind of Hollywood storytelling. (If you're feeling adventurous, check out the "Thermian" audio track on the DVD, in which the entire movie is dubbed into a squawking alien tongue. The track is unbearable past about five minutes, but it's astounding that anyone went to the trouble.)
Gardenia, Vincent. Actor, 1922-1992. Born in Italy and forged in Brooklyn, the perpetually sneering Gardenia turned a cranky New York attitude into a trademark, mining that personality type for priceless entertainment in almost every conceivable stripe of Hollywood offering. Consider the ease with which he plied his trade in two completely opposite projects. In the gruesome 1974 revenge picture “Death Wish,” Gardenia plays a relentless cop on the tail of a vigilante, and in the feather-light 1978 romance “Heaven Can Wait,” he essays the role of a relentless cop obsessed with a millionaire’s hat collection. Nimbly jumping from one characterization to the next while never losing his own ineffable appeal, Gardenia could play it straight or silly with equal conviction. His long career brought many accolades, including a pair of Oscar nominations for supporting roles: In 1973, he got the nod for playing a sensitive baseball coach in the melodrama “Bang the Drum Slowly, and in 1988, he got another for playing Cher’s exasperated father in the popular romantic comedy “Moonstruck.”
“The Gathering Storm” (2002). It would be a disservice to say that Albert Finney chews the scenery in this smartly assembled drama about England’s WWII-era savior, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, because Churchill was so flamboyant in real life. So instead it’s accurate to say that Finney attacks a role big enough to require all of his gifts, presenting Churchill as a bipolar giant so intellectually restless that only painting calms the “black dogs” lurking in the recesses of his soul. Set during the span of time when Churchill used his Parliament seat to warn Great Britain against the dangers of the Third Reich, the picture plays out as a taut suspenser about Churchill stealing government secrets and outmaneuvering opponents including his predecessor at 10 Downing Street. The film also presents a surprising love story about the complex relationship between the great man and his wife Clemmie (Vanessa Redgrave), a woman starved for affection and grasping for self-expression. Witty, touching, and thrilling, “The Gathering Storm” is effectively blends intimacy and grandeur.
“George Lucas’s Blockbusting.” Windily subtitled “A Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success,” this was book released under George Lucas’ aegis, through it’s unlikely the “Star Wars” guy played much more than a distant supervisory role; the text was assembled by editors Alex Ben Block and Lucy Autrey Wilson, abetted by a large team. Whatever its authorship, however, the book presents a treasure trove of useful information. Presented in the rigid format of a reference book, rather than that of a standard nonfiction narrative, the text features a two-page spread for each of 300 successful Hollywood films, released from the silent era to the present (circa 2010), providing data like the budgets and lengths of productions; box-office performance, presented in period dollars and also adjusted for inflation; and lists of major awards received. There’s also quick-hit trivia about the making of the films, and cursory remarks about why each picture connected with the public, but most of the deeper analysis is found in wraparound essays about each decade, plus sidebars about technological advances. At its wonkiest, the book delves into minutiae like a detailed budget breakdown of the Mae West comedy “She Done Him Wrong” (1933), for which, if you must know, extras were paid $11,750 in 1930s money, or $167,502 adjusted to 2005 dollars. The inflexible format means some movies get too much space while others get short shrift, but the sheer amount of raw data is intoxicating.
“Georgia” (1995). Difficult to watch but full of intense emotion, this drama about a popular folk singer and her untalented younger sister offers a fascinating look at those who wear fame comfortably and those who seek notoriety for the wrong reasons. Georgia Flood (Mare Winningham) leads a quiet family life when she’s not entertaining her faithful fans, but her troubled sibling, Sadie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is as unmoored as Georgia is stable: Caught in a cycle of bad relationships, hard drugs, and the pointless pursuit of a hard-rock singing career, Sadie has internalized the troubles of her childhood even as Georgia has channeled her issues into song. Watching Sadie strive for her sibling’s approval is wrenching, especially since Leigh gives one of her signature go-for-broke performances. The movie’s pivotal scene, in which Sadie takes the stage at one of Georgia’s concerts to perform a screeching wail of a song that’s like an open wound set to music, is among the triumphant moments of Leigh’s fearless career.
“Get Low” (2010). As an actor and as a producer, Robert Duvall admirably lends support to idiosyncratic projects, some of which are more interesting in conception than execution. But with “Get Low,” one of his finest late-career star vehicles, he hits an eccentric high point. Duvall plays Felix Bush, a hermit living in the Deep South of the 1930s. For reasons he keeps to himself, Bush decides to throw a “funeral party” at which he’ll be eulogized while he’s still alive—a challenging prospect since the people Bush hires to organize his event can’t find anyone willing to speak on his behalf. Cantankerous and tight-lipped, Bush has let himself become a whispered-about boogeyman, and we slowly realize that the party is his way of making a final public statement before going off to his final reward—or his final punishment. Duvall and writer-director Aaron Schneider ingeniously cast melancholy funnyman Bill Murray as Bush’s funeral director, and Murray’s sardonic style meshes beautifully with Duvall’s Southern-fried strangeness. Lucas Black is strong as Murray’s second-in-command, as are Bill Cobbs and Sissy Spacek as people who understand Bush’s tragic past. Helping the performances along are Schneider’s lean, imaginative script and breathtaking photography by David Boyd, who makes the forests of the rural South look like a magical wonderland with his use of blazing sunlight. By the end of the picture, we know Bush’s whole story, with its sad themes of loss and self-sacrifice, and it’s a joy to watch the skill with which Duvall and his cohorts evolve our perspective on this bizarre character from curiosity to caring.
"Ghost World" (2001). Smug hipsters, lonely snobs, and nunchuck-wielding crazies all get placed under the microscope in documentarian Terry Zwigoff's dazzling fiction debut. Based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, the picture tracks the adventures of misfit Enid (Thora Birch) and popular blonde Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), unlikely high school friends whose bond is tested after graduation. As the girls feel about for their places in the grownup world, they get involved with peculiar characters including Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a middle-aged record collector with a hilarious intolerance of philistines. Though Zwigoff often takes leisurely detours from his main narrative, he wanders to interesting places, and eventually finds his way back to the touching story of people growing apart no matter how hard they fight the process. Best of all, even the most bizarre characters are given a measure of dignity, which means that while Enid and Rebecca might be laughing at folks like the nunchuck guy, viewers can see the human beings behind the freaky behavior.
"The Girl in the Café" (2005). Put together quickly to air prior to the 2005 G8 summit, at which debt relief for poor countries was a key agenda item, this politically charged HBO dramedy is an offbeat entry into screenwriter Richard Curtis' oeuvre of witty romances. Bill Nighy, so brilliant as a jaded pop star in Curtis' directorial debut "Love Actually" (2003), turns world-weariness into epic suffering as a repressed British diplomat whose life gets shaken when he falls for a mysterious young woman. The couple's unlikely courtship prods the diplomat to invite his pseudo-paramour to the summit, and she shocks him by challenging his superiors and representatives from other countries with seemingly naïve, but actually quite savvy, questions about what shape civic responsibility takes in a global economy. The speed with which the picture was made shows in the lengthy speeches and iffy plotting, but Curtis' humanistic politics blend with his masterful wordplay to create compelling drama that surmounts narrative flaws. And though it's Nighy's show start to finish, Kelly McDonald more than holds her own as his provocative inamorata.
"Going Home" (1971). Never mind the hopelessly bland title—this obscure drama is of a piece with the best New Hollywood downers, even if the crime that instigates the film's climax is a bit much. Robert Mitchum is uncharacteristically impassioned but still recognizably laconic as an ex-con who served 15 years for killing his wife; Jan-Michael Vincent is suitably ambivalent as Mitchum's son, eager to bury the past but unsure if he can or should; and Brenda Vaccaro impresses as Mitchum's blue-collar love interest. Sparsely written and thoughtfully observed, the movie generates great tension as flung-together characters struggle to create something resembling a family, their earnest endeavors forever clouded by a tragic history none of them can overlook for any extended period of time. Regret, ennui, and white-hot violence simmer under the skin of this movie and its characters. The only feature directed by Hollywood rank-and-filer Herbert B. Leonard, "Going Home" is taut, hard-hitting, and dark, its many credible character details only compounding the impact of the devastating third act.
"Gojira" (1954). Very hard to see until its spiffy American arthouse release in 2004, this is the first Godzilla movie, but that's not a good reason to stop reading this entry. Although the franchise degenerated into kiddie fare almost immediately because this original film was bastardized into the Raymond Burr-starring atrocity that hit American screens in 1956 as "Godzilla, King of the Monsters," "Gojira" is something quite different. A haunted, bleak parable about the dangers of nuclear weapons, Ishiro Honda's movie is very much a product of post-WWII Japan—to the extent that montages of cities left in Godzilla's wake feel like newsreels shot in Hiroshima. It's all pretty heavy stuff for a picture about a giant rampaging lizard, but that's the point—in the original picture, the creature is more of a metaphor than an antagonist. Driven by funereal music and featuring the creepy roar that became a cliché somewhere during fifty years of bad movies, Honda's movie is shot through with grief, death, and suffering. The effect is maximized by clunky effects and the often murky black-and-white photography, so "Gojira" sometimes feels like a warning handed down from generation to generation. Viewers who have difficulty attaching this much significance to a monster mash can sit back and enjoy the handful of spectacular scenes, notably the iconic moment in which our scaly "hero" walks through a row of giant power wires. The cinema's most beloved case of halitosis isn't far behind.
Goldman, William. Storyteller, b. 1931. To put it in the cranky vernacular of his essays about the movie industry, any screenwriter who says he or she doesn't want to be William Goldman is full of shit. The original outsider who cracked the code, Goldman was the first writer to become famous for selling a spec script to the movies, way back in the halcyon days of the late '60s. That script turned into "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969), which won its scribe a Best Original Screenplay Oscar; it also announced the wiseass wit and twisty plotting that became his signature. Less than a decade later, "All the President's Men" (1976) won Goldman a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar to complement his previous trophy. His legend was secure by that point, but he was just getting started. Frequently identifying himself as a novelist who also writes scripts, the prolific Goldman alternates between books and movies, often melding his two worlds on projects like "Marathon Man" (1976), "Magic" (1978), and "The Princess Bride" (1987). He forged a third identity as an acerbic commentator on all things cinematic by crafting the irreplaceable "Adventures in the Screen Trade," his 1983 book about writing for the movies. "Adventures" revealed a voice in which cynical consternation about Hollywood insanity is paired with boyish wonderment at the majesty of movies that work. Even as his career rolls along, with conquests like 1990's "Misery" and stumbles like 2003's "Dreamcatcher," Goldman finds time to pontificate, equivocate, and excoriate in a style all his own, enrapturing professional and wannabe scribes with essays, personal appearances, and DVD commentary tracks. With the passing of Ernest Lehman, Goldman officially became the grand old man of Hollywood screenwriting, and no more perfect a figure could be found for the job than the irascible Oscar winner, whose love affair with story has led to decades of great movies and decades of great tall tales about the movies.
“Graven Images: The Best of Horror, Fantasy, and Science-Fiction Film Art.” A luminous four-color celebration of one fan’s lifelong preoccupation with macabre cinema, this attractive 1992 coffee-table book features reproductions of advertising art, mostly posters, culled from the collection of one Ronald V. Borst, Amazingly comprehensive, Borst’s oeuvre features hundreds of images, from gorgeously hand-painted expressionistic tableaux like the vintage promotional posters for “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1921) to photo-driven graphic-design masterpieces like the one-sheet for “Rosemary’s Baby” (1969). Not every poster qualifies as artwork, and in fact the images culled from the various giant-monster pictures released during the A-bomb-crazed ’50s are more kitschy than admirable, but in sum, the pieces tell an enjoyable story about the evolution of the public’s appetite for playful onscreen mayhem. (It’s just as well that Borst’s overview stops around 1969, since horror movies got a lot more gruesome in the ’70s onward.) Accentuating this pictorial pop-culture narrative are affectionate essays by an impressive roster of fantasy writers, each of whom tackles a favorite decade: Clive Barker, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Peter Straub. Furthermore, horror godhead Stephen King provides the introduction and fandom icon Forrest J. Ackerman provides the afterword.
"The Great Waldo Pepper" (1975). Writer William Goldman and director George Roy Hill reteamed only once after the triumph of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969), but their reunion is an underappreciated winner. Sundance himself, Robert Redford, plays the title character, a post-WWI flyer whose daring performances at stunt shows win him a berth as a stunt pilot for the movies. Besides giving Redford the sort of iconoclastic role at which he excels, the movie integrates Hill's personal love of flying to great effect—several of the aerial scenes, particularly the one featuring a wing-walker played by Susan Sarandon—are edge-of-your-seat exciting. The movie's also a showcase for Goldman's gifts, exploring the grit in a seemingly more innocent time and probing the flawed character of a larger-than-life figure. His screenplay meshes farce, tragedy, and human drama with impressive dexterity. For extra fun, read the section on this movie in Goldman's indispensable book "Adventures in the Screen Trade" (1983) after checking out the film; his analysis of why audiences didn't go for the picture is hindsight at its best.
“Great World of Sound” (2007). The offbeat tale of two ne’er-do-wells who inadvertently become part of a record-industry scam, this strange but soulful movie says interesting things about the desperation associated with those who crave the limelight at any cost, no matter how loudly the universe warns them their dreams will never be realized. Martin (Pat Healy) is a directionless twentysomething living who harbors half-hearted fantasies of getting involved with music, so he answers a want ad seeking talent scouts for a record label. Turns out he and other losers, including volatile recovering alcoholic Clarence (Kene Holliday), have been recruited to con would-be singers into paying for recording sessions. The friendship that develops between these two men is as believably weird as the dynamic between the reluctant swindlers and the pathetic wannabes they exploit; therefore, Martin’s anguish when he starts to sympathize with his victims is palpable. “Great World” may be too downbeat and low-tech for some viewers, but many of its emotional textures resonate.
Greene, Graham. Actor, b. 1952. After kicking around low-profile movies and TV shows for a decade, former standup comedian Greene seemed to burst from nowhere with "Dances With Wolves" (1990), in which his spectacular performance as enlightened leader Kicking Bird earned him an Oscar nomination. He immediately shot to the front of the very short line of steadily employed Native American actors, and the cinema is better for his prevalence. Not only can he nail a joke with panache, but he conveys great depth, whether playing world-weary characters or optimistic ones. He also has an ineffable quality of likeability, which elevates his lighter portrayals and adds layers to his darker ones. Particularly given the tunnel vision with which filmmakers generally view Native Americans, it's impressive to survey the variety of roles that Greene has played in the last 15 years. He's a sly activist in "Thunderheart" (1992), a chummy New York City cop in "Die Hard With a Vengeance" (1995), a wise groundskeeper in "Lost and Delirious" (2001), a guitar-strumming charmer in "Transamerica" (2005). Quite possibly his finest performance is in Chris Eyre's "Skins" (2002). As a reservation Indian crippled by alcoholism, Greene cuts through every cliché associated with such characters and takes his deeply moving portrayal to the level of Greek tragedy.
Greenwood, Bruce. Actor, b. 1956. It says a great deal about Greenwood's talents that he made one of his biggest impressions when viewers could easily have been distracted by the comely stripper on his lap. In Atom Egoyan's twisty "Exotica" (1994), Greenwood is powerful as a confused man torn by grief, loneliness, and misguided lust. He plays all those notes masterfully in a scene when exotic dancer Christina (Mia Kirshner) performs for him. Greenwood's profile rose two years later, when he played the lead in a cult-fave TV show called "Nowhere Man" (1995-1996). By the time the series went off the air, Quebec-born Greenwood was close to finding a niche as a character player specializing in white-collar types, often of the antagonistic variety. He played, for instance, an abusive husband in "Double Jeopardy" (1999) and a domineering astronaut in "The Core" (2003). Yet he has smartly avoided typecasting by seeking out more nuanced roles, such as that of a legendary writer's overshadowed lover in "Capote" (2005). And in one of Greenwood's most spellbinding turns, the Canadian actor incarnated the very American John Fitzgerald Kennedy in "Thirteen Days" (2000). With his unmistakable gravitas and an almost aristocratic reserve, Greenwood is as consistently interesting as he is consistently unpredictable.
“Grey Gardens” (1975). When news broke in the early ’70s that two of Jacqueline Onassis’ relatives were living in squalid conditions, documentarians Albert and David Maysles seized the opportunity to capture a surpassingly weird story. In their unvarnished style, the Maysles depict the tense coexistence of Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale, a decaying former singer in her 70s, and her unhinged daughter Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, a middle-aged ex-socialite. The women (Jackie O’s aunt and cousin, respectively) live among cats, raccoons, fading mementos, and festering trash in a dilapidated Long Island mansion called Grey Gardens. Since the filmmakers provide little in the way of context or closure, the movie’s like an extended visit with the strange women, who rhapsodize about the glamorous past while betraying little awareness of the desperate present. With her eccentric costumes and bizarre aphorisms (“I’m pulverized by this latest thing!”), Little Edie became an icon for the camp audience upon the release of the picture, and it’s hard to tell if the Maysles meant for her to become an object of ridicule; the film is intimate, but not exactly affectionate. The doc was the inspiration for the 2006 musical and 2007 telefilm.
"Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" (1984). Probably the first and last attempt to make a "real" Tarzan movie, Hugh Hudson's lush adventure features a smoldering Christopher Lambert as the titled Englishman lost in the African jungle and then raised by primates. The narrative is dark and tragic throughout, so despite the subject matter, it's hardly Saturday-afternoon fare. No less a figure than Robert Towne penned the daring script, a fair chunk of which is dialogue-free, but he grew so dissatisfied with the filmed version that he threw his dog's name onto the credits as a pseudonym. In another notorious affront, Andie MacDowell's movie debut as Tarzan's love interest was maligned when the producers deemed her Southern accent inappropriate and had Glenn Close dub all of the character's lines. (It never occurred to them during casting that she had an accent?) The real standouts among the cast are the Brits playing Tarzan's mentors, Ian Holm and Ralph Richardson, and the hero of the production is special effects guy Rick Baker, Hollywood's resident lord of the apes. As he did for "King Kong" (1976), "Gorillas in the Mist" (1988), and other films, Baker furnishes the movie with ape suits that contribute to a winning, if not always totally convincing, illusion.
“Grizzly Man” (2005). When would-be naturalist Timothy Treadwell was killed in 2003 while trying to live among grizzly bears, the incident struck most people as an odd parable about a fool paying for reckless behavior. But Werner Herzog, a filmmaker well acquainted with recklessness, saw something more, so he studied the circumstances of Treadwell’s death, revisited the site of his ursine encounters, and interviewed the late adventurer’s friends and family. What emerged from Herzog’s investigation was this extraordinary documentary, which simultaneously condemns and applauds the hippy-dippy Treadwell. The filmmaker marvels at his subject’s idealism while dismissing, with characteristic gloom, the notion that man can ever truly understand the savagery of the natural world. Though Treadwell’s video footage of his time spent among the bears is spellbinding, especially when paired with Herzog’s thoughtful narration, the most intriguing aspect of the picture is the poignant thread of Herzog finding a kindred spirit. Since the awe Herzog feels for the natural world has long been leavened with respectful fear, it’s touching to see him try to understand how Treadwell overcame fear altogether. Given this context, it’s shattering to discover the reason behind Treadwell’s seemingly bold lifestyle—he simply found greater communion with animals than with most people. More than just an examination of how a strange life ended, “Grizzly Man” grapples on many levels with the complicated dynamics of the observer and the observed.
Grodin, Charles. Curmudgeon, b. 1935. It’s a bit of a stretch to call onscreen sad sack Grodin a supporting actor, because at the outset of the ’70s he enjoyed a brief run as a leading man. Playing a newlywed who falls for another woman during his honeymoon in “The Heartbreak Kid” and a diamond merchant-turned-thief in “11 Harrowhouse” (both 1974), Grodin contributed the most bone-dry comic delivery imaginable. His charisma proved too understated (or perhaps too off-putting) for starring roles, however, and he found a new berth as a top-shelf character player in pictures such as “King Kong” (1976), featuring an flamboyant Grodin as a slimy oilman, and “Heaven Can Wait” (1978), with a pitch-perfect Grodin as an incompetent murderer. Simultaneous with building a secondary career as a writer and pundit, Grodin landed arguably the best role of his career in “Midnight Run” (1984), playing a mob accountant who enjoys/endures a cross-country adventure with angry bounty hunter Robert De Niro. And while the actor’s second-rate Andy Rooney routine on the short-lived “60 Minutes II” was of only passing interest, he found a terrific vehicle for his writerly voice in the 1990 memoir “It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here.”
“The Guard” (2011). The best buddy-cop movies feature characters who shouldn’t be compatible making the best of the insane circumstances that bring them together, and the strange black comedy ‘The Guard” is a great example: Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) is a cheerfully perverse Irish policemen forced to work alongside straight-arrow FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) on a drug-related murder case with international implications. Writer-director John Michael McDonagh, whose brother Martin McDonagh made the similar “In Bruges” (2008), fills “The Guard” with outrageous scenes like Boyle’s tryst with a pair of hookers wearing police uniforms, plus running gags like Boyles’s tendency to make wildly offensive comments. Gleeson is hilarious and oddly touching, while Cheadle makes a wonderful foil: His character is flabbergasted by Boyle’s vulgarity even as he reluctantly acknowledges the man’s investigative skill. Like “In Bruges,” “The Guard” somehow works as a character piece, a comedy, and a thriller all at once.
“Gun Crazy” aka “Deadly Is the Female” (1949). Zippy, tough, and hampered only by a few patches of cornball dialogue, this provocative B-movie hews to the classic lovers-on-the-run structure that birthed later notables including “Badlands” (1973) and “Natural Born Killers” (1994). Bart, played as an adult by John Dall, was infatuated with guns throughout his troubled youth, so when he meets sideshow trick shooter Annie (Peggy Cummins), the poor shlep’s eyes just about pop out of his head. Soon enough, the misfits embark on a rampage of bank robberies and close calls with the law. Besides the fun plot, two elements make the picture especially notable: the blunt Freudian implications, with lots of business about potency and stamina, and the bravura centerpiece scene, a midday robbery photographed from the backseat of the getaway car. Pretty heady stuff for a bottom-of-the-bill programmer about two crazy kids in trouble.
“The Gunfighter” (1950). One of the first Hollywood Westerns to investigate the psychology of swaggering shootists, Henry King’s taut drama intriguingly casts nice guy Gregory Peck as Ringo, a world-weary outlaw who wanders into a small town to reunite with his estranged wife, fully aware that people in the town are gunning for him. Peck’s dark reticence perfectly suits the character of a man uncomfortably saddled with the reputation he sought in his younger years; the performance sharply conveys the unusual idea of a man giving himself over to a fate he didn’t know he was courting. Yet while the picture generates sympathy for Ringo, it doesn’t let him off the hook for the misdeeds of his past. Featuring a mostly anonymous cast of studio players (Richard Jaeckel and Karl Malden are among the exceptions), the movie’s an unusually serious, focused, and unflinching character study for its era and especially for its genre. Peck also gives one of his most nuanced early performances, tapping into the moodiness that was apparently a significant component of his offscreen persona.
Haley, Jackie Earle. Lost and found, b. 1961. Haley was excluded from the initial version of this guide out of compassion: I didn't want to write about yet another gifted young actor who frittered away a career. But with his celebrated resurgence in two 2006 movies, "All the King's Men" and especially "Little Children," the story of this unique performer has an exciting new chapter. In the mid-'70s, Haley emerged from rank-and-file parts with an indelible screen persona as the ultimate insouciant '70s kid, playing a runt with a hair-trigger temper in "Breaking Away" (1979) and portraying ultra-cool cycle-riding ball player Kelly Leak in "The Bad News Bears" (1976) and assorted sequels. His tiny frame and narrow face suited these nervy characters, who strutted about as if they were the tallest and toughest kids in any crowd. Haley seemed almost preternaturally smooth in those key parts, so it was a bit of a shock to see him flounder when the showy roles disappeared. The South Carolina native trudged through the '80s playing negligible parts and doing odd jobs to survive in Hollywood, until finally decamping to Texas for life as a video professional and family man. But the industry unexpectedly came calling years later, when Sean Penn and director Steve Zaillian recruited Haley to play a creepy gunsel in "All the King's Men." The real comeback, of course, was Haley's award-winning performance as a tortured pedophile in "Little Children." It remains to be seen whether Haley's return was a fluke or the start of something new, but whatever the case, the accolades for his mature work rescued him from the ghetto of lost juvenile performers.
“Harold and Maude” (1971). Adventurous filmmakers have spent more than thirty years trying to replicate the magic of “Harold and Maude,” the ultimate odd-couple romance, but there’s still nothing quite like Hal Ashby’s movie about a morbid youth’s affair with a vivacious senior. Anchored by Colin Higgins’ audacious script and propelled by Cat Stevens’ twee tunes, the piece is equal parts character study and life lesson. Ruth Gordon is brassy and joyous as Maude, an old woman for whom death is no longer a mystery, and Bud Cort is quietly volatile as Harold, a young man for whom death is a source of endless fascination. Some of the outlandish suicide tableaux with which Harold tries to shock his blueblood mother take the movie toward slapstick inanity, but the film gains immeasurable gravity with the fleeting revelation of Maude’s somber backstory. The morbid underpinnings of the story keep even the most uplifting moments from being saccharine, and the constant specter of mortality adds to the uniquely bittersweet tone.
Harris, Richard. Balladeer, 1930-2002. My favorite of the liquored-up master thespians who stormed from the British stage to international stardom in the 1960s, the flamboyant Harris was a scene-stealer of the first order, delivering performances so overripe with theatrical gesticulations and shouted dialogue that he almost assaulted audiences in the process of entertaining them. A darkly charming Irishman who took as much joy from rugby as he did from acting, Harris pursued a side career as a pop singer following the success of “Camelot,” the 1967 musical in which he croons the role of King Arthur. That led to the unlikely spectacle of working-class tough guy Harris scoring a massive hit in 1968 with a seven-minute rendition of Jimmy Webb’s twee ballad “MacArthur Park.” At the outset of his career, Harris embodied a particular romantic ideal with his roguish profile, purring brogue, and deep blue eyes. He soon caught attention as an insouciant solider in “The Guns of Navarone” (1961) and an angry rugby player in “This Sporting Life” (1963). Eclectic international movies followed until he struck gold with “Camelot” and embarked on a three-year music career. When he got back to movies in the early ’70s, Harris focused on adventure pictures, investing the rough men he played with poetic sensitivity. Unfortunately for his credibility, he picked odd projects like “A Man Called Horse” (1970), in which he plays an Englishmen indoctrinated into an Indian tribe; the sequence in which Harris’ character is suspended from a ceiling by hooks bored through his chest set a pretty extreme tone for the next phase of the actor’s career. The movies got weirder as the ’70s progressed, from the bizarre actioner “99 and 44/100% Dead” (1974) to the gruesome creature feature “Orca” (1977). Bright spots during the period included colorful roles in two choice Richard Lester pictures, the erudite disaster thriller “Juggernaut” (1974) and the elegiac fantasy “Robin and Marian” (1976), but Harris’ downward trajectory was as unmistakable as his deterioration from alcoholism. Things got really dicey in 1981, when a gaunt Harris was upstaged by Bo Derek’s breasts in “Tarzan, the Ape Man.” The rest of the ’80s were bleak, with a diminished Harris revisiting past triumphs in a stage revival of “Camelot” and the cheapo sequel “Triumphs of a Man Called Horse” (both 1982). Yet Harris had one last great run in him, which began with the acclaimed Irish drama “The Field” (1990); looking shockingly old with his thick white beard, Harris added a new layer of brittle nuance to his signature bluster. He was just as good in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” (1992), playing a battered gunslinger basking in past glories. Then came the last long walk into movie history, punctuated by frail but vivid appearances in “Gladiator” (2000) and the first two Harry Potter movies.
“Harry & Tonto” (1974). Arguably writer-director Paul Mazursky’s best film, which is saying a lot given his celebrated oeuvre, “Harry & Tonto” is the deceptively simple story of an old man wandering through mid-’70s America with his housecat as a traveling companion. Yet “Harry & Tonto” is so much more than just a bittersweet road movie. As soon as stuck-in-his-ways widower Harry (Art Carney) is evicted from his New York City apartment, he’s forced to reexamine his life, his relationship with his children, and whether there’s still a place in the world for someone past his prime. Anchored by Carney’s Oscar-winning performance, the picture digs deep into a kind of working-class existentialism, while also surrounding Harry with vivid incidental characters and complementing elderly ennui with slyly observational humor about far-out hippies, high-strung liberated women, and pathetic would-be swingers. Quiet but moving, “Harry & Tonto” is one of the quintessential character studies of the ’70s.
“Harry Tracy” (1982). Very much of a piece with another Canadian film of the same year, “The Grey Fox,” this obscure Western stars Bruce Dern as an affable but relentless train robber in turn-of-the-century Canada. With his characteristically off-kilter vibe, Dern puts a unique spin on the romantic-outlaw iconography of pictures like "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1968), and Allen Daviau photographs the movie gloriously. Adding extra Great White North flavor, Canadian troubadour Gordon Lightfoot contributes both a folksy theme song and a somnambulant performance as Tracy 's chief pursuer. The storytelling is a bit leisurely, but the film is notable because it features Dern essaying one of his few sane leading characters. Devotees should have no fear, however; Tracy is a crook in love with the idea of dying free, so it's not as if the actor paints his characterization solely with muted colors.
Hauer, Rutger. Cool customer, b. 1944. Prolific and unpredictable, Dutchman Hauer has conveyed just about every tone imaginable onscreen, playing everything from a randy sculptor to a poetic android to a malevolent drifter. After a colorful youth that reportedly involved absentee parents, military service, and incarceration in a psych ward, Hauer began a fruitful partnership with director Paul Verhoeven, who cast the blue-eyed blonde in several challenging movies. Whether traipsing about nude through most of “Turkish Delight” (1973) or elegantly incarnating an aristocrat-turned-guerilla in “Soldier of Orange” (1977), Hauer proved a versatile collaborator during Verhoeven’s breakthrough years. But when Hauer hit Hollywood in the early ’80s, his charismatic leading turns in offbeat movies (1985’s fantasy romance “Ladyhawke,” 1989’s cheeky actioner “Blind Fury”) were overshadowed by the icy cruelty of his villainous portrayals. After giving one of the decade’s most memorable performances, as soulful “replicant” Roy Batty in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi thriller “Blade Runner” (1982), Hauer cemented his bad-guy legend with the malicious glee he brought to enigmatic psychopath John Ryder in “The Hitcher” (1986). Lead roles in big movies dried up in the early ’90s, much to the detriment of the cinema, and these days Hauer’s biggest challenge often appears to be disguising the boredom he experiences making things like the TV remake of “The Poseidon Adventure” (2005). When given strong material, he’s still quite a force, as evidenced by his small but vivid role in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight redux, “Batman Begins” (also 2005).
Haysbert, Dennis. Actor, b. 1954. Now widely known as an assuring TV pitchman and as the authoritative star of series including "24," in which he played President David Palmer from 2001 to 2006, Haysbert kicked around television for most of the '80s in anonymous roles. With his commanding stature and deep voice, Haysbert started to make an impression at the end of the decade, playing a voodoo-practicing ballplayer in "Major League" (1989) and a tough commando in "Navy S.E.A.L.S." (1990). His work gaining deeper gravitas and nuance with each passing year, the actor slogged through a few more years of smallish parts before finally making his splash on the first year of "24." He amplified that success with his performance in "Far From Heaven" (2002), Todd Haynes' graceful homage to Douglas Sirk's studio-era weepies. As a gardener whose friendship with a white housewife sparks a scandal in their '50s community, Haysbert is quietly heartbreaking. In 2006, the actor took on the lead role of "The Unit," a David Mamet-created action series.
Heard, John. Actor, 1946-2017. A sandy-haired everyman with a rasp in his voice and a devious twinkle in his eyes, Heard distinguished himself on the New York stage before making his mark onscreen as the lead in two middling Joan Micklin Silver dramedies, "Between the Lines" (1977) and "Head Over Heels" aka "Chilly Scenes of Winter" (1979). He then gave a spectacular, almost histrionic performance as a vet-turned-vigilante in the peculiar thriller "Cutter's Way" aka "Cutter and Bone" (1981). Wearing an eyepatch and missing two limbs, his Alex Cutter is a frightening, charismatic force of misplaced counterculture bitterness. Although leading roles of such unique parameters eluded Heard thereafter, he remained a reliable and often indispensable presence in mainstream movies and television, whether reacting to youthful high jinks as the dad in the "Home Alone" movies or to urban menace in various episodes of "Law & Order." Among latter-day roles, his work was especially good in the indies "Mindwalk" (1991), a talky piece about ecology and politics, and "Desert Blue" (1998), wherein he plays an academic intrigued by roadside kitsch. He also enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with director Penny Marshall on several films, and he played a memorable (if brief) recurring role in the first season of "The Sopranos," netting him a 1999 Emmy nomination,
“Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” (1991). Quite possibly the best making-of doc ever, this masterful dissection of how Francis Ford Coppola lost his mind making 1979’s “Apocalypse Now” constructs a driving narrative from the on-set footage that Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, filmed during the tumultuous shoot in the Philippines. Documentarians Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper complement the vintage stuff with adroitly inserted new material. All the expected drama is present, from star Martin Sheen’s real-life heart attack to the buffeting whims of Hurricane Marlon, and the combination of you-are-there footage from the ’70s with pained retrospect filmed a decade later works wonders. A picture quickly emerges of a filmmaker so bound up in his own hubris that he starts out thinking he’ll change the world, then ends up thinking the world wants him dead. The irony is never lost that “Apocalypse” ended up a spectacular misfire, one of movie history’s most personal epics but not the masterpiece it should have been. Memorable moments abound in the doc, from “Apocalypse” scribe John Milius’ lofty aspirations (“Francis had me convinced this would be the first film to win the Nobel Prize“) to Brando’s bizarre bloopers (“I swallowed a bug”).
"Heat" (1995). Billed as "a Los Angeles crime saga," Michael Mann's action opus more than lives up to the hype. At its center a simple battle between opposite numbers with a great deal in common, an unhinged cop and a disciplined criminal, the movie sprawls into something much richer by expanding its view to include whole galaxies of minor characters orbiting its leading players. On the law-enforcement side, we get Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), who achieves greater familial coherence with his fellow badges than he does with his paramour and troubled daughter. On the criminal side, we get Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), who runs his armed-robbery machine like a small business. As these men deepen their adversarial relationship, growing to recognize parts of themselves in each other, their worlds dissipate: Hanna loses touch with loved ones by adopting the merciless methods of a crook, and McCauley sees his enterprise fracture when he opens his heart. Working with frequent collaborator Dante Spinotti behind the lens, Mann delivers some of the most visually arresting sequences of his career, from obvious showstoppers like the giant gunfight at the center of the movie to subtler moments like a quiet scene of McCauley watching the ocean. The emotional payoffs come fast and furious, involving both central and peripheral characters. And as always, Mann's use of music is remarkable. Leave it to him to find the most transcendent moment in techno-guy Moby's songbook, then use that shimmering cut to close out his spectacular movie.
“Heaven Can Wait” (1978). The second film version of Harry Seagall’s whimsical play “Heaven Can Wait” (the first was the terrific 1942 comedy “Here Comes Mr. Jordan”), this breezy romantic fantasy co-directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry is a modernized riff on a sweet fable. Beatty stars as a Joe Pendleton, an LA Rams quarterback accidentally called to heaven before his time, forcing a celestial functionary (played by Henry) to find Joe a new body; all the while, conscientious middle manager Mr. Jordan (James Mason) oversees the matter with patience and wisdom. Pendleton ends up in the body of a corrupt millionaire, using his newfound fortune to buy his way back into football—and also to perform good works that win the heart of strident activist Betty Logan (Julie Christie). Featuring an immaculate script and terrific acting (by the stars plus Vincent Gardenia, Jack Warden, and others), “Heaven Can Wait” is intelligent fluff, with clever running jokes and droll characterizations clearing the path for the irresistibly bittersweet resolution of an otherworldly love story.
"Heaven's Prisoners" (1996). An entertaining neo-noir featuring one of Alec Baldwin's sweatiest performances, this adaptation of James Lee Burke's detective thriller is also the most satisfying of several movies directed by late-'80s wunderkind Phil Joanou. Baldwin plays ex-cop Dave Robicheaux, whose reclusive life in the bayou with his stalwart bride (Kelly Lynch) ends abruptly when he gets drawn into New Orleans' sleazy underworld. As with most such movies, the plot is really just an excuse for simmering character bits, whether it's a sly cop (Vondie Curtis-Hall) fishing for information or a working girl (Mary Stuart Masterson) wondering if life ever gets better. There's not much here that hasn't been seen in other places, but Joanou holds the piece together with greasy blues tunes, flashy camerawork, and atmosphere so thick you can almost feel the condensation on everyone's beer bottles. There's even room for Eric Roberts—in cornrows.
Henriksen, Lance. Beastmaster, b. 1940. Piranhas, aliens, mutant dogs, demons, Terminators—name a monster, Henriksen has either killed it or been killed by it in one of his hundred or so movies. Hell, he was in two Bigfoot movies in 2006 alone. The obvious reason for his ubiquity in genre entertainment is that he made his mark in sci-fi pictures, playing a sarcastic cop in “The Terminator” (1984), a heroic android in “Aliens” (1986), and a southern-fried vampire in “Near Dark” (1987). The deeper reason is that few actors besides Henriksen can muster the oversized tones of amazement, blind fear, and unhinged rage required to make silly concepts credible. Plus it doesn’t hurt that his voice rolls like distant thunder and that his face seems pulled straight out of pulp fiction. Even considering his many striking big-screen turns, the New York native’s best performance to date may well have been on TV. As Frank Black, the haunted investigator in the supernatural drama “Millennium” (1996-1999), Henriksen grounded his portrayal in world-weary angst and integrated nuances like wry gallows humor and a staunch dedication to family. Dig deep into his c.v., and you’ll discover that Henriksen first caught notice in key New Hollywood movies, especially 1974’s “Dog Day Afternoon.” Given the versatility he showed then, and the authority he shows now, it’s a shame his success in fantastic entertainment has led to almost exclusive employment in genre pictures. Henriksen sure kills them monsters good, but he’s capable of so much more.
“He Ran All the Way” (1951). John Garfield was often at his best playing tough guys backed into corners, and that amply describes his role in this quick, energetic noir. Small-time thug Nick (Garfield) escapes a gunfight with the cops and stumbles onto simple-minded city girl Peg (Shelley Winters), who blithely invites her newfound pal back to her family’s apartment. Soon enough, Nick’s got the whole family held hostage, leading to a pathetic scene in which he forces his ersatz clan to enjoy a big meal around the dinner table—at gunpoint. Slyly challenging notions of family and loyalty, the picture becomes a sharp portrait of a man incapable of understanding that which he most desperately craves. Garfield is sensitive and relatable without ever mitigating the horror of Nick’s behavior, and Winters, right in her comfort zone as a bewildered Noo Yawk gal, contributes one of her finest early performances.
“Here Comes Mr. Jordan” (1941). The romantic fantasy that Warren Beatty famously remade as “Heaven Can Wait” (1978) is a textbook example of studio-era Hollywood filmmaking working on every level. The production is glossy and slick, the pacing fast but never rushed, and the tone so consistently delightful that watching the movie is like relishing a great meal, each course more delectable than the last. Robert Montgomery plays Joe, an amiable boxer who dies before getting his title shot. Sort of. When an overzealous afterlife functionary yanks Joe’s soul to Heaven before the moment of death, the unlucky hero is left stranded between this world and the next until one of God’s savvier lieutenants, Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains), agrees to find Joe a new body to inhabit. This predicament kicks off an absurd but entertaining chain of events filled with humor, romance, optimism, and movie magic. Montgomery’s performance is distinguished by a dry, streetwise charm, and Claude Rains instills his performance with a humane sophistication that’s as comforting as it is amusing. Best of all, the story is so singularly involving that the winner-takes-all denouement guarantees a lump in the throat every time.
Herzog, Werner. Prince of pain, b. 1942. Nobody knows their way around existential dismay better than Werner Herzog. Over the course of fifty films, the German auteur has disseminated a worldview so nihilistic that it's always a shock to encounter his friendly offscreen manner in documentaries and personal appearances. It's as if he's so assured of humankind's doom that there's nothing left to do but document the species' decline and have some laughs along the way. And while there may in fact be a thread of hope woven into his bleak parables, Herzog's fatalism is so damned engaging that it would be a shame were he to shift gears this far into his exemplary career. The signal achievements of the Teutonic Terror's rampage are of course familiar: "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972), "Nosferatu the Vampyre" (1979), "Fitzcarraldo" (1982). Any one of these movies is enough to make the hardiest filmgoer chug Prozac. And Herzog's laments in documentaries about his work, notably "Burden of Dreams" (1982), are anguished arias about the murderous natural world that he captures in unforgettable images. Yet then there's that offbeat Herzog humor. Look at the bizarre shots of a man taking a frozen turkey for a ski-lift ride in "Stroszek" (1977), or at Herzog's wonderfully satirical performance as himself in the mockumentary "Incident at Loch Ness" (2004). So whether he's pummeling audiences with bummer plot twists, hypnotizing them with surreal images, or entertaining them with knowing spins on his own legend, Herzog is a cinematic force like no other. His powers were at their very strongest in "Grizzly Man" (2005), his acclaimed documentary about a reckless naturalist, and his website, www.wernerherzog.com, is an elegant combination of screeds and salesmanship.
“Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird” (2011). An insightful study of reclusive author Harper Lee, the literary magician whose only book is the 1960 race-relations masterwork “To Kill a Mockingbird,” this doc explores the history and impact of the novel while also examining the deeper question of whether an artist belongs to the public. Lee had already eschewed interviews for four decades by the time she declined to chat with the makers of “Hey Boo,” so as the picture integrates archival footage, interviews with admirers and friends (including Lee’s ancient but spirited sister), a complex figure comes into focus: Lee mined her family history for anecdotes and characters that infused the novel, helped publicize her book until it was embraced by the public, then withdrew, as if she’d given enough of herself for a lifetime. Rather than seeming intrusive, however, “Hey Boo” is a respectful tribute to Lee’s literary and personal integrity, and to the continued relevance of her subject matter. There’s also, for good measure, some tasty material about Lee’s fraught relationship with childhood friend Truman Capote, for whom she made huge personal sacrifices that were, by all accounts, wholly unappreciated by the narcissistic Capote.
Hill, Walter. Smooth hombre, b. 1942. Although their approaches and thematic interests are radically different, Hill paralleled John Carpenter for several years in the late '70s and early '80s by delivering films so distinctively his that a Walter Hill directing credit was like a brand name. One of his leading ladies, Diane Lane, made a remark to the effect that "Walter doesn't go to see movies, he makes the movies he wants to see," and that focus is reflected in taut popcorn flicks including "The Warriors" (1979), "Southern Comfort" (1981), "48 HRS." (1982), and "Streets of Fire" (1984). Presenting stories with such clipped characterization, terse dialogue, and punchy visuals that many of them felt like comic books sprung to life, Hill perfected a vibe built on methodical camerawork and quicksilver editing. He also had a keen ear for music, employing Barry DeVorzon's moody synths on "The Warriors" and Ry Cooder's keening slide on "Southern Comfort." Each of his early movies contains a handful of bravura sequences, even if the films themselves don't entirely persuade, and his later output sometimes lacks the precision of his best work. (Not so his contributions to the extraordinary HBO Western series "Deadwood.") Yet his mark is indelible, both as a stylist and as a producer—he was on the team that generated the "Alien" franchise, even cowriting the blistering 1986 entry "Aliens."
Hines, Gregory. Actor/dancer, 1943-2003. Veteran hoofer Hines was that rare performer who made virtually everything he did onscreen feel natural and immediate, no matter how ridiculous or trivial his roles. In his least committed performances, he exuded the vibe of a guy who could take or leave movies; more often, he added spontaneity and easy charm to everything from lowbrow comedy to heavy drama. Though a handful of his best-known roles were grounded in his remarkable skills as a tap dancer (and as a somewhat loftily billed “tap improvographer”), there was much more to Hines than the fleet-footed stepping in “White Nights” (1985) and “Tap” (1989). He was, for instance, a lethal comedian, holding his own opposite Mel Brooks in “History of the World: Part I” (1981) and playing a deranged gun runner in “Deal of the Century” (1983); toward the end of his career, he eased into the impeccable ensemble of “Will & Grace,” appearing on the sitcom irregularly from 1999 to 2000. He also lent his loose charm to heavier projects, playing an ill-fated coroner in the offbeat horror flick “Wolfen” (1981) and portraying a real-life dance legend in the biopic “Bojangles” (2001).
Hoffman, Philip Seymour. Actor, 1967-2014. Ascending past countless glamour-puss peers, Hoffman quietly but insistently made his name through sheer talent and determination. Fifteen years after making his first ripple on the pop-culture consciousness as a bratty prep schooler in “Scent of a Woman” (1992), the remarkable performer accepted a hard-won Oscar for “Capote” (2005), in which he played notorious literary figure Truman Capote with grace, precision, and shattering power. In between those two milestones, Hoffman delivered a string of vivid performances that hit just about every note imaginable. He’s energetic in “Twister” (1996), snotty in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999), hilariously effete in “Cold Mountain” (2003). And in the films of his most consistent early booster, indie auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, he gave Oscar-worthy performances years before the Academy finally looked his way. Of Hoffman’s Anderson collaborations, perhaps the most affecting is “Magnolia” (1999), featuring the actor’s heartbreaking turn as nurse diligently trying to reconnect a dying man to his estranged son. The pair’s filnal film together, “The Master" (2012), features Hoffman giving a mesmerizing turn as an enigmatic, L. Ron Hubbard-like religious leader. Remarkably versatile and just as consistent, Hoffman haf the promise to create one of the great acting careers, but that hope was snuffed by his shocking death of a drug overdose in 2014. Some obituarties focused on the fact that Hoffman left his fine recurring role in the “Hunger Games" franchise unfinished, though perhaps it’s more fitting to accetuate his last great complete screen performance, as a world-weary master spy in “A Most Wanted Man."
Holbrook, Hal. Actor, b. 1925. This distinctly American player is instantly recognizable with his shaggy mane of silver hair and his rangy, musical delivery. Probably best known for his frequently reprised portrayal of Mark Twain, which he debuted in the late '60s, and for scaring the hell out of Robert Redford as cagey informant Deep Throat in "All the President's Men" (1976), Holbrook has been a constantly entertaining figure on the stage and screen since the mid-'60s. Though he seems to tackle almost any role without breaking a sweat, he's truly indispensable when given reams of dialogue that would cow a lesser talent. Consider his appearance in "Capricorn One" (1978), one of many conspiracy-themed pieces into which Holbrook found himself thrust post-"President's Men." Very early in the clever lark about a fake Mars landing, Holbrook unfurls an endless expository monologue that reflects a great failure of screenwriting imagination but is nonetheless gripping because of how Holbrook tosses off line after line with impeccably fabricated spontaneity. In 2007, Holbrook enjoyed an unexpected career revival when director Sean Penn featured the veteran actor in “Into the Wild”; Holbrook’s precise, heartbreaking portrayal of an old man desperately trying to save a surrogate son earned his long-overdue first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor.
Holden, William. Tarnished gold, 1918-1981. Holden’s arc from gleaming god to sodden wreck is as dramatic as the narrative of any of his movies, and the wonder of it is that his gifts never left him even as he drifted from one unexpected new identity to the next. The prototypical boy next door made good, Holden was a blindingly handsome Illinois native who made his proper screen debut in the fittingly titled “Golden Boy” (1939). His casting in the adaptation of Clifford Odets’ social drama led to the usual gripes that the actor who originated the role on Broadway, Luther Adler, was replaced with a shallow Hollywood type. Holden didn’t do much to dispel such criticism in the ensuing decade, playing vapid leads until he underwent his first startling transformation. Under the tutelage of master director Billy Wilder, Holden unveiled powerful dramatic chops in “Sunset Blvd.” (1951) and “Stalag 17” (1953). He also proved to be one of the best-ever interpreters of Wilder’s caustic dialogue. After a quick retreat to romantic roles in Wilder’s enchanting comedy “Sabrina” (1954) and Joshua Logan’s overwrought “Picnic” (1955), Holden lucked out again when David Lean cast him as the principal American in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957). As an officer of dubious credentials and even more dubious heroism, Holden provides an essential perspective in Lean’s examination of misguided battlefield valor. An inconsistent period including many lesser war pictures followed, and during that time Holden decayed to a shocking extent because of his out-of-control boozing. So by the time yet another iconic director gave Holden a timeless role, he seemed like a totally different actor. In Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969), Holden is ragged and vicious, every trace of his boyish appeal and effortless ebullience gone. And though more than a decade of work followed, only one more great role came Holden’s way, perhaps because his quickening deterioration made his screen image too damn depressing. That last great role was Max Schumacher in the Paddy Chayevsky-penned “Network” (1976). As a living personification of television’s conscience, Holden tears through reams of dialogue with ferocity and grace, his ravaged appearance adding to the sense that television has ground Max into something less than a man. Holden died in a drunken household accident a few months after the release of his final picture, Blake Edwards’ cynical Hollywood story “S.O.B.” (1981).
“Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of ‘Dracula’ from Novel to Stage to Screen.” David J. Skal, who enjoys enviable status as the reigning authority on vintage movie horror, secured his reputation with this 1990 book, a meticulously researched and beautifully presented study of the world’s most famous bloodsucker. Methodically tracing how Bram Stoker’s epistolary novel bred endless theatrical and cinematic incarnations, Skal provides a treasure trove of trivia and images for fans of everything from “Nosferatu,” the unauthorized 1922 silent-movie version helmed by F.W. Murnau; to the so-called “Spanish Dracula,” the 1931 production made simultaneously with Bela Lugosi’s; to the cult fave “Count Dracula,” a 1978 UK telefilm starring Louis Jourdan. Woven through the book is the poignant journey of Lugosi, the actor seemingly damned to oblivion by his, ahem, undying association with the Drac role. Whereas Skal’s commentaries on various Universal horror DVDs are awfully dry for a guy preoccupied with plasma, his scholar’s passion for all things vampiric makes “Hollywood Gothic” a brisk read, and the evocative pictures and drawings he unearthed during his research make the book a pleasure to revisit.
“Hollywoodland” (2006). Quite close in spirit to 1997’s “L.A. Confidential,” though not nearly as bloodthirsty, this pensive mystery-drama uses the notorious death of TV’s first Superman as the springboard for a study in malice, lust, disappointment, and redemption. Adrien Brody plays a low-rent P.I. hired by George Reeves’ mother to investigate why the erstwhile Man of Steel died a year after his show was cancelled. Writer Paul Bernbaum and director Alan Coulter intercut the sleuthing story with flashbacks detailing the sad tale of Reeves, a pretty-boy actor demolished by typecasting and, presumably, the limits of his talent. Ben Affleck gives his most serious-minded performance to date as the embittered Reeves, and Diane Lane undercuts her luminescent image playing the aging trophy wife who takes Reeves as her kept man. The film artfully illustrates the many theories about Reeves’ death, from the official story of suicide to more lurid explanations involving jealous women and thuggish studio execs. A dense but clear-headed mesh of interconnected tragedies, the picture runs on a bit long for its own good before finally arriving at a surprisingly poignant denouement. It also accomplishes something rare in sordid dramas about the movie industry by making themes unrelated to fame as important as those primarily germane to the picture business.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939). Arguably the most grandiose adornments lavished on the theme of misunderstood monsters during Hollywood’s Golden Age, the knockout production values of this classic are matched only by the bravura performance at the center of the movie. Building on the extravagance of the silent Lon Chaney version made in 1925, this take puts peerless scenery-chewer Charles Laughton in the Quasimodo role to unforgettable effect. Hump and grotesque makeup in place, the virtually unrecognizable Laughton conjures operatic pathos as the misshapen simpleton endangered by his infatuation with a gypsy girl. Undoubtedly drawing on his own experiences as an unhandsome man of size, Laughton plays to the cheap seats with a minimum of dialogue, letting sad eyes and animalistic physicality tell Quasimodo’s story. Director William Dieterle builds a huge production around Laughton, dazzling with massive sets and endless waves of extras, but he’s always firmly in control with graceful camera moves and assured pacing. Cedric Hardwicke provides oily villainy, and Irish stunner Maureen O’Hara is so appealing as Esmeralda that it’s silly to quibble about her lack of gypsy bona fides.
“The Hunger” (1983). A posh spin on vampire mythology, Tony Scott’s directorial debut is one of the best-looking movies of the ’80s, and its strongest moments are indelible. Adapted from a novel by Whitley Strieber, whose fresh take on werewolves led to “Wolfe” (1981), this picture concerns an ancient female vampire who consigns her longtime human companion to an agonizing death when she decides to take a new lover. The story gets bogged down in tedium and the logic is dicey, so it’s the sexy style of the piece that lingers. Borrowing heavily from tricks perfected by his older brother, Ridley, Tony Scott uses painterly visuals, kinetic editing, and a pulsing soundtrack to create a movie with great visceral impact, especially in fantastic stretches like the opening scene, a murder intercut with Goth band Bauhaus’ performance of “Bella Lugosi’s Dead.” While David Bowie contributes an effectively eerie turn as Miriam’s discarded paramour, there’s no avoiding the fact that most people remember this picture for the sex scene involving leading lady Catherine Deneuve, one of the screen’s all-time great beauties, and comely costar Susan Sarandon.
Hunt, Helen. Actor, b. 1963. Hunt was already a showbiz vet by the time she caught notice as a brainy starlet in the mid-’80s, having notched projects like the squeaky-clean series “Swiss Family Robinson” (1975-1976), on which she was a prepubescent regular, and the lurid telefilm “Angel Dusted” (1981), in which she, well, angel dusted. Slight, blonde, and beautiful in an offbeat way, Hunt endured years of typecasting as wholesome young things before hitting a boom period in the early ’90s. She toughened her image considerably by playing a real-life femme fatale in the 1991 telefilm “Murder in New Hampshire,” and she was seemingly everywhere the following year. “Mad About You,” the long-running sitcom costarring Hunt and Paul Reiser as neurotic spouses, launched just months after Hunt gave a bold performance as a paraplegic’s girlfriend in “The Waterdance.” Two undersung turns, as an inexperienced cop in the 1993 telefilm “In the Company of Darkness” and as a recovering alcoholic in the 1995 feature “Kiss of Death,” followed before Hunt entered the blockbuster realm with 1996’s “Twister.” Goofy escapism that Hunt played remarkably straight, the movie gave the actress box-office cachet and launched her on a series of big movies that started very strong—she won an Oscar for 1997’s “As Good As It Gets”—and then fizzled. Her performances in the late ’90s and beyond also became a touch rarified, with Hunt’s preciousness sometimes overtaking the sensitive artistry that distinguishes her best work. Hunt made her directorial debut with “Then She Found Me” (2008).
Huston, Danny. Actor/director, b. 1962. Though he didn’t grow up in the same house as his famous father, John—who lived in Ireland while young Danny was raised by his mother in Italy—Danny Huston inherited many of the great man’s gifts, notably a richly textured speaking voice and a uniquely malleable acting style. Yet Huston’s emergence as one of the industry’s most enjoyable character actors was far from a sure thing. At the beginning of his career, Huston plucked away at a mediocre directing career that peaked with the lurid literary biopic “Becoming Colette” (1991). Then, in the early 2000s, Huston started showing up in films with the gravitas of man approaching middle age, playing parts that showcased his rascally charm. Things really started to click in 2005, when he played a calculating government official in “The Constant Gardener” and a vicious outlaw in “The Proposition.” Typecasting as a villain followed immediately, but Huston embraced his new cinematic persona with gusto. In the otherwise forgettable vampire flick “30 Days of Night” (2007), he’s vivid and even a little sympathetic as a pallid bloodsucker that communicates with animalistic snarls. Though most of his roles fall under the bad-guy umbrella, Huston infuses all of his roles with depth and nuance, whether he’s a conniving corporate titan in the Mel Gibson thriller “Edge of Darkness” (2006) or a merciless Civil War-era attorney in Robert Redford’s political drama “The Conspirator” (2010).
Huston, John. Renaissance man, 1906-1987. Of the classic Hollywood directors still working when the studio system collapsed, John Huston rolled with the cultural changes most gracefully, transitioning easily into a gritty style during the '70s and then capping his filmography with a trio of elegant movies that shined like gems in the crass '80s. That these impressive accomplishments occurred in what could easily have been the twilight of a celebrated career is testament to Huston's maverick nature. From his earliest days behind the camera, when he was among the first wave of top screenwriters to bargain their way into directing gigs, Huston followed his unusually expansive muse through a dizzying variety of genres, frequently stumbling but just as frequently making pictures so assured and witty they became the standards by which films in their genres are judged. He also found time to celebrate his dynasty, directing his dad, Walter, to an Oscar in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948) and repeating the trick for his daughter, Angelica, in "Prizzi's Honor" (1985). Huston made one of the great directorial debuts with the assured Sam Spade caper "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), then racked up several more credits, including acclaimed war documentaries, before making his first true masterpiece, "Sierra Madre." Soaked with the director's love of Mexico, his Irishman's verbal lilt, his sophisticated sense of irony, and his ease with high adventure, the movie is remarkable on every level. A fruitful '50s and an iffy '60s followed, with high points including "The African Queen" (1951), all sass and texture, and low points including "Reflections in a Golden Eye" (1967), probably the most pretentious of Huston's attempts to create cinematic literature. Once the '70s arrived, Huston danced through genres and moods and styles like a madman freed from his cell, making everything from an eccentric Western (1972's "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean") to an almost perfect adventure epic (1975's "The Man Who Would Be King"). While his filmography is not without embarrassments and even movies that invite nothing more than indifference, everything Huston did was informed by his insatiable curiosity and his disarming wit. He was also, of course, an actor of considerable gifts. From his earliest appearances, like his wink-wink bit part as a wealthy American in "Sierra Madre," to his wackiest performances, such as his crazed turn as a Machiavellian patriarch in 1979's "Winter Kills," Huston was quite often more entertaining on camera than he was behind the lens. One of the great larger-than-life personalities in Hollywood history, Huston was a raconteur and bon vivant the likes of which the movies probably will never see again.
"In a Lonely Place" (1950). Humphrey Bogart rampages through this bleak drama about love, trust, and rage, giving one of his most unflinching performances. Playing a screenwriter accused of murder and then exonerated by the beautiful neighbor who falls for him, Bogart captures the angst of a high-minded artist stuck in a low-minded world, then spices the portrayal with a thread of unreasonable, almost psychotic anger. As the neighbor, Gloria Grahame nearly matches Bogart's world-weary wit. Though not without its lighter moments, the film is haunted by the specter of Bogart's unpredictable fury, which makes it an interesting complement to the romantic films on his resume—whereas in those pictures love tempers wild men, in this one love makes the protagonist more paranoid and vengeful. That's certainly not the most hopeful statement Bogart ever made through his movies, but it's a statement that echoes nonetheless. Nicholas Ray, ever adept at capturing volatile performances, directs with a sure hand from the ominous opening to the fatalistic denouement.
“In Bruges” (2007). The years following “Pulp Fiction” have been clogged with one insufferably self-conscious crime movie after another, so it’s shocking to encounter a post-modern gangster picture that avoids nearly every pitfall germane to this derivative genre. Yet “In Bruges” is just such a picture, a one-of-a-kind charmer that’s alternately horrifying, moving, and outrageously funny. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson star as thugs shipped off to the titular Belgian town after a job goes awry in the UK. Farrell’s a wonder as the fidgety city kid who can’t bear another minute in the sleepy but classically picturesque locale, and Gleeson is completely endearing as the older sophisticate hardened by years of violent misdeeds. The surrogate-family dynamic between these two grows deeper and more surprising as their adventures in Bruges become more and more outlandish; the bits involving the drug-addled dwarf and the incompetent con man are particularly memorable. And then when Ralph Fiennes enters the picture as the boys’ unhinged boss, things really get demented. Not for every taste by any stretch, especially because the dramatic elements go very dark, but an unpredictable treat for those willing to take the ride.
"An Inconvenient Truth" (2006). Perhaps emboldened by seeing what a mess George W. Bush made of the presidency that should have been his, Al Gore brought his time-tested slideshow about global warming to the big screen for this riveting documentary. That's right—riveting. For even though the picture largely comprises the former veep showing charts that track how manmade pollution is causing the planet to overheat, Gore's arguments are so level-headed and passionate that "An Inconvenient Truth" builds tension equivalent to that found in any thriller. While overtly demonstrating that a pattern of catastrophic melting is underway at the world's poles, Gore subtly fingers the Big Oil interests with which Bush is associated as the villains of the piece. Bush and his short-sighted cohorts deny global warming, Gore argues without naming names, just as Big Tobacco used to deny reports that cigarettes killed people. Why face the inconvenient truth, he asks, if the convenient lie is so profitable? Gore smartly leaves brand-name politics out of his presentation, instead calling for grassroots activism and a broader sense of civic responsibility. Director Davis Guggenheim adds to the piece's nonpartisan impact by layering in lyrical vignettes about Gore's private life. These touching moments depict how the near-death of a child, the loss of a mother to lung cancer, and finally the failure to win the White House drove Gore to choose raising awareness of global warming as his life's work. While the motivations of any politician are always suspect, the information Gore imparts in "An Inconvenient Truth" is sobering, and the hope he conveys that people can still turn things around is inspiring. (Visit the movie's site at www.climatecrisis.org for more info.)
"Inserts" (1975). Writer-director John Byrum's brazen debut film is a harrowing, real-time dramedy that addresses sex not only directly, but from so many gruesome angles that it's like a ribald intellectual farce. Richard Dreyfuss, at his most deft and self-satisfied, plays a faded silent-movie director called Boy Wonder, whose career is so far off the rails that he's directing blue movies for underworld types. The movie details an eventful day during which Boy Wonder manipulates and intimidates three eccentrics into playing violent sex scenes, all while confronting his own sexual dysfunction and the haranguing of his mobster financier, among other crises. Veronica Cartwright, a long way from the shrewy supporting roles for which she's famous, is fearless as a porn diva, and the other members of the small ensemble—Bob Hoskins, Stephen Davies, cult-movie queen Jessica Harper—provide texture and tension. Funny, surprising, and disturbing, "Inserts" straddles the line between profundity and pretension. For those willing to play along with Byrum's gamesmanship, it's a one-of-a-kind stunner.
“The Insider” (1999). One of Michael Mann’s rare departures from his beloved crime genre, this epic exploration of how a tobacco-industry whistleblower and a “60 Minutes” producer became entwined is as exciting as any gunfight Mann ever staged. Russell Crowe, in the role that earned him the first of three successive Best Actor nominations, traps his volatile energy into a bloated, gray-haired frame to play the Big Tobacco scientist who decides enough is enough. Al Pacino, meanwhile, releases his volatile energy to play the Big Media heavyweight who too easily forgets the human angle when pursuing a hot story. Told in tautly linear fashion, Mann’s movie tracks the escalation of the war between Crowe’s character and his former employers, who grow more and more desperate to suppress his revelations. The parallel story, in which a reporter wrestles with his obligations to a source, is interwoven on every level, adding to a complex examination of journalistic, corporate, and personal ethics. Deftly employing jagged editing, adventurous camerawork, and propulsive music, Mann benefits greatly from a characteristically strong ensemble. Christopher Plummer is the obvious standout as overbearing “60 Minutes” reporter Mike Wallace, but Colm Feore, Gina Gershon, Philip Baker Hall, Wings Hauser, Bruce McGill, and others contribute memorable work as well.
“In the Bedroom” (2001). Partway through what appeared to be a routine acting career, Todd Field sprung out of seemingly nowhere with this tough, confident directorial debut. Incisively detailing the fallout from a domestic tragedy, the picture caught notice by giving Sissy Spacek one of her grittiest leading roles. As a bereaved mother whose coldness is both a cause and an effect of the drama’s inciting cataclysm, she reveals depths of darkness virtually untouched since her days as Carrie White. As her husband, a simple man drawn inexorably toward vigilantism, Tom Wilkinson matches Spacek at every turn. And as the blue-collar woman whose relationship with Spacek’s character sparks much of the picture’s most incendiary invective, Marisa Tomei retrenches after a stretch of undernourished romantic roles with a painfully intimate dramatic turn. While primarily an actors’ showcase, Field’s picture boasts a narrative as well-crafted as the performances that make it soar. Often uncomfortably truthful, “In the Bedroom” is probing blend of character drama and noirish gloom.
“in the Loop” (2009). Tracing the buildup to armed conflict in the Middle East, this scaldingly funny movie focuses on an inept mid-level U.K. politician (Tom Hollander), whose verbal slip on a radio show leads to a hot-potato soundbite employed opportunistically by hawks and doves on both sides of the Atlantic. The plot is actually quite deft and insightful, but what makes “In the Loop” so deeply enjoyable is the outrageous dialogue. Hollander spends the entire movie showing symptoms of fatal foot-in-mouth disease, “Sopranos” guy James Gandolfini slays as a hot-tempered general suffering a couth deficiency, and standout Peter Capaldi scorches the earth upon as possibly the most foul-mouthed Scotsman ever committed to film. Whenever Capaldi unleashes one of his F-bomb strafing runs, it’s cause for viewers to do one spit take after another, because his vulgarity has a gutter poetry unseen since the days of “Deadwood.” A sly piece of work with more to say about the forces that drive geopolitical strife than ten hand-wringing dramas about anguished veterans, “In the Loop” deservedly notched an Oscar nomination for its breathlessly paced screenplay.
“In the Shadow of the Moon” (2007). Smart filmmakers have long realized that the lives of astronauts involve dynamics that the rest of us mere mortals can only imagine, but this mesmerizing documentary creates a whole new context for its subject matter. By gathering exclusive interviews with nearly every American who stepped on the moon during the glory days of the U.S. space program, director David Sington puts human faces onto superhuman experiences. Held together by stunning archival footage and slickly interwoven special effects, the talking-head bits (filmed as direct addresses to the camera) let the dozen participants compare notes so that reverence and irreverence sit comfortably with each other. One quickly realizes that the risk involved with each “moon shot” was terrifying, and that for some astronauts the years since their lunar landings have been spent trying to grasp the enormity of those fleeting moments on another celestial body. Sington’s storytelling is confident and elegant, feeding the audience just enough jargon to understand the broad strokes but never missing opportunities for poignancy or humor. But even with all of this film’s incredible virtues, the most evocative thing about it is a mystery: The only living moon-walker who did not participate was the reclusive Neil Armstrong, the very first man to step on lunar soil. After watching “In the Shadow of the Moon,” it’s impossible not to conjecture on the hundred fascinating reasons why being the first person to achieve a particular something in the history of the human race could be as much of a burden as it is an honor.
"Into the Night" (1985). An absurd but soft-spoken comedy about an unlucky insomniac who stumbles into a crime caper, "Into the Night" finds director John Landis having a grand old time with everything from cheap sight gags to wink-wink casting to giving himself a role as one of three perpetually snacking thugs. Jeff Goldlbum plays a sleepless everyman who happens upon mob moll Michelle Pfeiffer, who in turn is being chased by baddies including a smarmy killer played by David Bowie. (Rock great Carl Perkins appears to equally sharp effect, and bluesman B.B. King contributes the flick's slinky theme song.) While the farcical goings-on are great fun, particularly given Landis' deadpan presentation and the spot-on comic timing of the editing, the real treat for movie geeks is spotting the myriad directors Landis cast in bit parts—David Cronenberg, Jim Henson, Lawrence Kasdan, etc. Even with all the talent on board, Bruce McGill pretty much steals the show as Pfeiffer's cranky Elvis-impersonator brother.
"Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956 and 1978 versions). Often described as an allegory for the anticommunist witch hunt of the '40s and '50s, Don Siegel's 1956 adaptation of Jack Finney's story works just fine as a creepy sci-fi thriller. Relentlessly paced and filmed in an efficient style that accentuates the claustrophobic narrative about alien impostors supplanting the citizens of a small town, the black-and-white wonder ratchets the tension and paranoia for 80 breathless minutes. The ending is among the finest in the genre, perfectly summating the implications of the disquieting story. Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake adds sophisticated character details and modern special effects to the mix, losing none of the original's menace and in fact deepening the impact. Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams are suitably unmoored as the leads, and the supporting cast is rock-solid, with Leonard Nimoy giving perhaps his best performance outside of the "Star Trek" universe as an unctuous pop psychologist. Improbably, the ending of the remake has even greater punch if you've seen the original.
Ironside, Michael. Actor, b. 1950. As far as typecasting goes, Michael Ironside got off pretty easily. An intense Canadian with dark features, he seemed poised for a career playing cookie-cutter villains after telepathically exploding enemies’ heads in “Scanners” (1982) and incarnating a cyborg baddie called Overdog in the 3-D romp “Spacehunter” (1983). But then he landed the part of a tough resistance fighter in various incarnations of “V,” the TV franchise about lizards invading Earth, proving he could portray antiheroes as nimbly as antagonists. The downside was that he got locked into the sci-fi/fantasy/horror circuit, occasionally leaving the genre nest for voiceover gigs and violent turns in B-grade actioners. A recurring role on “ER,” as a surgeon named William “Wild Wally” Swift, gave Ironside a rare opportunity to play a realistic role when the character was introduced in 1995, and he demonstrated his dramatic chops to creepy effect in 2003’s “The Machinist.” As a factory worker sent reeling by an on-the-job accident, Ironside is memorably bitter, funny, and frightening. Though rarely given room to display the brighter colors in his range, Ironside consistently gives vivid, forceful performances.
"Ironweed" (1987). While I primarily enjoy this dreary drama because it provided my first sighting of a real live movie star—I lived near Albany, New York, in the '80s and watched Jack Nicholson shoot an afternoon's worth of exteriors—the picture has its lasting virtues. Adapted from William Kennedy's bleak tale about haunted hoboes in Depression-era Albany, the movie has a unique location because it's still the only major feature filmed in the city, and director Hector Babenco's languorous style gives viewers plenty of time to take in the locale. Nicholson is uncharacteristically restrained as lost soul Francis Phelan, and Meryl Streep gives one of her most undersung performances as his boozy street chum; her hoarse belting of the tune "He's My Pal" is one of the picture's typically downbeat highlights. Fred Gwynne, Tom Waits, Diane Venora, and a host of other ace players contribute invaluable supporting turns, as does Nathan Lane in his first movie role. The movie's a bummer, but it has real grit and, for the patient viewer, an unpleasant sort of emotional power.
“The Island of Lost Souls” (1933). Not too many horror movies from the early sound era retain their ability to disturb, but this one does. Adapted from H.G. Wells’ novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” this vicious little picture features Charles Laughton as Moreau, a psychotic surgeon creating his own race of “animen,” animal/human crossbreeds, on a remote island. The bland hero who stumbles onto, and then unravels, Moreau’s scheme is a necessary narrative evil, as is the luridly billed character of “The Panther Woman.” Much more arresting are the various animen who prowl the jungle around Moreau’s lair, each more savage and creepy than the last. There’s even room for Bela Lugosi as a hairy beast, unrecognizable until his thickly accented voice purrs “Not to spill blood, that is the law! Are we not men?” (If you can’t figure out the answer to that one, you’ve never seen a horror movie.) Scariest of all is Laughton, a fey, bloated maniac with a nasty temper, a handy whip, and a sickening scheme.
"Islands in the Stream" (1977). An elegantly made film that surmounts its iffy storyline through moody location photography and a magnetic lead performance, Franklin J. Schaffner's peculiar drama is both an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's writing and a stylistic homage to his terse wordsmithing. Folding together three stories and actually labeling the distinct sections of the movie accordingly, "Islands" follows the eventful life of an American sculptor living in the Caribbean. Over the course of the film, he faces estranged relatives, personal tragedy, wartime violence, and high-seas adventure. This being Hemingway, naturally big fish play into the drama, with character traits far more defined than those of any women onscreen. The sculptor's a little on the insufferable side, and many of the plot twists are contrived, but what keeps it all interesting and cohesive is George C. Scott's thunderous performance. Even in the reflective moments, of which there are a surprising number, Scott's presence dominates the screen, powerfully conveying the ideas that art is the means through which this wild man releases his volcanic personality, and that life only has meaning if it's lived with the grace and symmetry of art. Pretentious, yes, but in Scott's masterful hands, also poetic.
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