peter hanson's field guide to interesting film
Sanderson, William. Actor, b. 1948. Over the course of Sanderson’s epic career, the sad-eyed Memphis native has been cast as every conceivable sort of rube, most enduringly as bizarre townie Larry on the beloved sitcom “Newhart” (1982-1990). And while he’s occasionally been given roles that ask him to personify greater mental dexterity, like that of a lonely robot maker in “Blade Runner” (1982), a great deal of his filmography comprises tangential portrayals of dullards. Then came the role of E.B. Farnum on the HBO series “Deadwood.” Fatuous, filthy, feckless, and prone to outbursts meshing gutter vulgarity with ornate polysyllables, the characterization probably contains a broader range of emotions than can be found in the totality of Sanderson’s other roles. His luminous turn as a lowly cretin was especially exciting given how few of his rank-and-file peers ever get to play so rich a role over such an extended duration of time. One hopes Sanderson’s return to the anonymous throng after the series’ demise is only a respite before the next great thing comes along to make full use of his underappreciated talents; his minor role on “True Blood” a decent substitute in the interim.
Scheider, Roy. Actor, 1932-2008. Scheider had a sly way of easing into choice dialogue, tossing off the first few syllables and then sloping up to a punchy climax, that always wowed me. (Say it with me: “I think you’re gonna need a bigger boat.”) What made the approach so wonderful is that by the time Scheider finished interpreting a bon mot, he’d snuck in a concise portrait of a character’s emotional state, often adding a nuance that complicated an already rich portrayal. Not every project gave the New Jersey native room to conjure his particular magic; his career got off to a slow start and his final years onscreen were filled with roles beneath his stature. But the lean athlete with the perpetual nut-brown tan spent the 1970s delivering taut portrayals infused with streetwise authority, and sporadically thereafter, juicy roles allowed Scheider to flex his dramatic muscles. Beyond “Jaws” (1975) and “All That Jazz” (1979), it’s hard to find a truly great movie in which he has top billing, but he appeared in plenty of enjoyable popcorn flicks, from 1973’s “The Seven-Ups” to the ’80s trifecta of “Blue Thunder” (1983), “2010: The Year We Make Contact” (1984), and “52 Pick-Up” (1986). Each of these romps showcased Scheider’s suave demeanor and his engrossing slow burns to memorable effect. And of course Scheider lent leading-man power to key supporting roles in many strong films: Think “The French Connection” (1971) and “Marathon Man” (1976) from back in the day, or “The Rainmaker” (1997) and “RKO 281” (1999) in the later years. By all accounts hamstrung professionally by a falling-out with Universal’s Lew Wasserman in the late ’70s that all but erased him from the A-list, Scheider was a survivor who retained his dignity in even the schlockiest of projects. Luckily, it’s the great work that eulogists remembered when he succumbed to cancer at the age of 75.
Schrader, Paul. Writer-director, b. 1946. A personal hero of mine because of his journey from Michigan to movie criticism to screenwriting and, finally, to a career helming depressing movies, Schrader boasts one of the strongest authorial voices of the New Hollywood crowd. In tandem with securing iconic status by writing or cowriting Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" (1976), "Raging Bull" (1980), and "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988), Schrader established himself as a director of contemplative, usually disturbing dramas. Although his most notorious movies explore darkly sexual themes, such as pornography in "Hardcore" (1979) and sexual addiction in "Auto Focus" (2002), perhaps his most accomplished directorial endeavors are "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters" (1985) and "Affliction" (1997). The former is a hypnotic exploration of the tumultuous life and spectacular death of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima that features one of Philip Glass' finest movie scores. The latter is a gritty rumination on familial violence featuring a career-capping performance by James Coburn. Notable for his ability to rebound from misfires, Schrader endured an ugly public squabble with Warner Bros. regarding "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist" (2005), a horror outing the studio found so horrifying (in the wrong way) that Finnish actionmeister Renny Harlin was hired to reshoot nearly the entire film. Shrader's version eventually saw daylight, but remains a footnote to his impressive career. Redemption arrived several years later with "First Reformed" (2018), a scathing meditation on climate change, depression, religion and other heavy themes that may well be the finest (and most unrelenting) movie Schrader has ever made. Incidentally, Schrader is among the most articulate speakers in overviews of the New Hollywood era, offering exceptional pith in the fab documentary "A Decade Under the Influence" (2003).
Scott, George C. Dynamo, 1927-1999. As notorious for his disdain of the Academy Awards as he was revered for the titanic power of his performances, Scott presented a unique screen image. Built like a bear and prone to punctuating his performances with vituperative outbursts, Scott also displayed tremendous verbal dexterity and moments of poignant quietude. A living embodiment of the struggle between man’s violent and creative impulses, the ex-Marine from Virginia made his name in the ’50s doing stage work and early TV. His breakthrough role, as a prosecutor in 1959’s “Anatomy of a Murder,” earned him an Oscar nomination that prompted him to say he wouldn’t accept the award if he won. As his stature grew—another nom for 1961’s “The Hustler,” jaw-dropping performances like his comedic turn as a nutjob general in 1964’s “Dr. Strangelove”—a showdown with the Academy became inevitable. It finally happened when he won Best Actor for 1970’s “Patton” and declined the statuette. The iconoclastic gesture was very much in the spirit of his lauded performance, because Scott charged through “Patton” like a force of nature, incarnating every grandiose contradiction in the persona of real-life warhorse Gen. George S. Patton Jr. The actor contributed his soulful bluster to several offbeat ’70s pictures, including the Paddy Chayefsky-penned satire “The Hospital” and the James Goldman-written oddity “They Might Be Giants” (both 1971). The quality and size of Scott’s movies started to wane in the ’80s, as his alcoholism and violent temper took a toll, and some of his strongest roles in the period were echoes of past glories. In 1981’s “Taps,” he echoes Patton as a soldier reduced to teaching cadets, and he reprised his most famous role in the 1986 telefilm “The Last Days of Patton.” The nadir of the later years may well have been 1984’s Stephen King horror show “Firestarter,” in which Scott was inexplicably cast as a Native American. The late ’90s found Scott retracing his earliest professional steps by returning to TV drama, only as a grand old master instead of a hungry young comer. His last role, fittingly enough, was as a passionate orator defending a controversial viewpoint in the 1999 telefilm “Inherit the Wind.”
“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010). British director Edgar Wright is a pop-culture addict of the first order, and also an exceptional craftsman when it comes to generating mile-a-minute visual comedy: His films combine a Tarantino-like flair for genre references with breakneck-paced sight gags. In “Scott Pilgrim,” one of the better graphic-novel adaptations of its era, Wright treats the romantic travails of a young nerd like levels in a video game, complete with elaborate duels between Scott (Michael Cera) and his various competitors for the hand of beguiling alterna-babe Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The beauty of this highly entertaining film is that the quiet scenes are as much fun as the sequences of pure visual spectacle; Cera’s patented girly-man routine perfectly grounds the outrageous story in palpable adolescent angst. Still, Wright never disappoints when the picture kicks into overdrive, because the videogame scenes are dazzlingly conceived and edited. This is big-budget nerd cinema done right, a vibrant mix of narrative imagination and whiz-bang action.
Semple, Lorenzo Jr. Screenwriter, 1923-2014. Despite the wildly erratic quality of the pictures on which he worked, Semple’s impish wit and old-school devotion to putting on a helluva show permeates his filmography. First off, consider his top-shelf credits. He was among the writers who created three extraordinary '70s thrillers: "Papillon" (1973), "The Parallax View" (1974), and "Three Days of the Condor" (1975). He helped craft the house style for the deathless "Batman" series of the 1960s, even penning the exuberantly silly script for the 1966 spin-off feature. And as far as cult-flick cred goes, it's hard to beat Semple's one-two punch of "King Kong" (1976) and "Flash Gordon" (1980). Towering above everything is “Pretty Poison” (1968), a minor classic about sex, teenagers, madness, and murder; it’s hard to imagine another writer pulling off such a deft mixture of satire and insouciance. At his best, Semple elevated pulpy stories with nervy plotting and playful wordplay. At his worst, he opted for lurid puns and puerile storytelling, as in the cheesecake flicks “Fathom” (1967) and “Sheena” (1984). Still, there’s a distinct personality at work (or rather at play) in every script bearing Semple’s name, and that’s an accomplishment only a rare few of his more celebrated peers achieved. Toward the end of his life, the long-retired scribe appeared as a cheerfully persnickety critic in the online “Reel Geezers” shorts, his panache and pith intact.
“Series 7: The Contenders” (2001). A ruthless satire of reality TV, writer-director Daniel Minahan’s no-budget gem follows several participants through an on-air contest with considerably higher stakes than a million bucks—the contestants kill each other, and the last one standing wins. Brooke Smith, so memorable as the kidnap victim in 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” takes her predilection for depicting desperation to a highly entertaining extreme, playing a gun-toting pregnant woman mowing down anyone in her path. She’s a perfectly distilled image of the soulless avarice at the heart of the reality genre, literally risking every life she touches in the pursuit of fleeting fame. Like so many pictures proceeding from a great one-line premise, “Series 7” loses its footing toward the end, but the combination of Minahan’s wicked perspective and Smith’s fearless performance makes the picture worth watching—unlike most examples of the genre it so gleefully ridicules.
"The Seven Per-Cent Solution" (1976). Proof that escapist entertainment needn't be mindless, Herbert Ross' spirited adaptation of Nicholas Meyer's novel gives Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) an unexpected cohort in the form of Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). The ingenious story has Sherlock at wit's end trying to shake his cocaine addiction and unravel the machinations of Professor Moriarity (Laurence Olivier), while Freud, dutiful Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall), and an alluring fellow addict (Vanessa Redgrave) offer their support. Unusual for its tacking between high adventure and disquieting drama, the movie presumes its audience is smart enough to follow the clues and the bon mots; the way Williamson speeds through dense dialogue and acrobatic deductions is like a dazzling special effect. Though a little long-winded in its final stretch, the picture almost never fails to give its remarkable cast interesting things to do and say.
“sex, lies, and videotape” (1989). Steven Soderbergh’s debut feature remains his most consistently charming endeavor, a personal story about trying to manage neuroses in the search for happiness. By the director’s own admission, the central character of Graham (James Spader) is a stand-in for the filmmaker, which makes the unflattering depiction even more interesting. When Graham drifts back into the life of college chum John (Peter Gallagher), the long-haired mystery man’s offbeat carnal proclivities spark passions that upset John’s marriage to Ann (Andie MacDowell) and John’s dalliances with Ann’s sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). A straightforward tale that the director tricks up with nonlinear storytelling and clever editing, the piece launched an important directing career and became the figurehead for the modern indie-cinema boom. Yet unlike most pictures that spark lasting cultural shifts, “sex, lies, and videotape” is still enormously entertaining: Spader is effectively restrained; MacDowell summons surprising grit; and the movie presents a heartfelt personal statement that unloads psychological detritus without boring the audience.
Shalhoub, Tony. Actor/filmmaker, b. 1953. A compact Arab-American with a sweet face that belies the intensity he's capable of generating, Shalhoub has displayed astonishing versatility throughout his rise from rank-and-file character player to basic-cable leading man. In one of his first breakout parts, as a linguistically challenged cab driver in the 1990 comedy "Quick Change," Shalhoub achieved such an operatic level of exasperation that he nearly stole the movie from star Bill Murray. A multiyear run on the sitcom "Wings" followed, with Shalhoub playing another cab driver new to America. The scope of his range became evident toward the end of the '90s, when the actor delivered one masterful performance after another in a series of wildly diverse movies. He played an agonized Arab-American FBI agent confronted with shocking racism in "The Siege" (1998), a laid-back actor-turned-adventurer whom nothing startles in "Galaxy Quest" (1999), and a diabolically slick shyster in "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001). Shalhoub took major steps behind the camera in 2002, directing the feature "Made Up" and executive-producing the comic detective series "Monk." Finding a perfect niche for himself in the lead role of obsessive-compulsive investigator Adrian Monk, Shalhoub won two Emmys, among other awards, for his meticulous and heartfelt work on the series before its acclaimed run ended in 2009.
"Sharky's Machine" (1981). Just around the time his career began sliding into post-superstardom disrepair, Burt Reynolds enjoyed his strongest outing as a director with this rich cop thriller set in Atlanta. The story is nothing special, standard business about cops investigating how a sophisticated crook manipulates a weak politician, but two elements distinguish the picture. First is the movie's gorgeous look, courtesy of ace shooter William A. Fraker. Characters in nighttime scenes seem carved out of black marble, action bits benefit from gritty texture, and leading lady Rachel Ward is photographed like a goddess. Second is the easygoing ensemble work of an eclectic cast. Vittorio Gassman and Henry Silva are campy as the villains, and the team of cops pursuing them—Bernie Casey, Charles Durning, Brian Keith, Richard Libertini, Reynolds—has the layered interplay of a family. Oh, and just to amp up the intensity, there's a torture scene late in the movie sure to make any viewer cringe.
"Shattered Glass" (2003). As exciting as a Hitchcock thriller, writer-director Billy Ray's examination of Stephen Glass—the young reporter who fabricated articles during his meteoric rise at "The New Republic"—is essential viewing for anyone trying to make sense of the Information Age. In acutely illustrating how Glass snowed not only sophisticated readers but his savvy coworkers, Ray reframes Paddy Chayevsky's "Network"-era worries about entertainment usurping information for modern times in which that upheaval has, to a great degree, already occurred. The picture is anything but a civics lesson, because it comprises minute details and expertly defined sequences of events—even as Ray dramatizes the impact of Glass' duplicity, he makes it clear how seductive and clever Glass was. Hayden Christensen, a long way from light sabers and lava pits, is wonderfully squirrelly in the lead role, though the picture is really anchored by indie great Peter Sarsgaard, as the tenacious editor who investigates Glass' iffy journalism. Sarsgaard's damning declarations about why Glass found a berth in the highest echelons of the news media echo long after the movie's over.
"Shaun of the Dead" (2004). Joy might not be a quality one expects to associate with a grisly zombie picture, but the sheer glee director Edgar Wright and star Simon Pegg display throughout "Shaun of the Dead," which they cowrote, is irresistible. A love story about two best friends that's disguised as a horror/comedy about the undead, the movie oozes juvenile exuberance with its way-over-the-top gore and gross-out jokes, but it's made with such craft, heart, and intelligence that it's anything but childish. Pegg plays a British everyman whose comfortable routine is thrown off-kilter the day the dead start walking the earth, and he soon finds himself the leader of a gaggle of survivors including some of his closest friends and relatives. Sharp domestic comedy, surprising pathos, and lots and lots of dismemberment ensues, with everything unfolding in a breezy, upbeat fashion. Pegg is riotous, as are all the members of the sterling cast, with especially loud shout-outs due to Bill Nighy and Nick Frost.
Shaw, Robert. Actor/writer, 1927-1978. Shaw spent only a half-century on the planet, but he left behind a legacy big enough for three lifetimes. A burly Englishman with a menacing purr of a voice, wily eyes, and the confrontational swagger of a barroom brawler, Shaw found time in his 51 years to pen several novels and a Tony-nominated play, marry three times and father ten children, and by all accounts drink himself to oblivion enough times to level a lesser man. He also cut a broad swath through movies, distinguishing himself in the ’60s and then contributing some of the liveliest performances of the ’70s. His early screen highlights included menacing Sean Connery in the 007 outing “From Russia With Love” (1964) and incarnating the historical figures Gen. George S. Custer and King Henry VIII in “Custer of the West” and “A Man For All Seasons” (both 1968). “Russia” earned him iconic status and “Seasons” netted him an Oscar nomination. Shaw then delivered wickedly entertaining performances in “The Sting” (1973), “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (1974), and of course “Jaws” (1975). The “Jaws” role of antisocial sea dog Quint fit Shaw so perfectly that he disappeared behind the character’s sideburns and moustache, talking his way into movie history by delivering the spellbinding “U.S.S. Indianapolis” monologue and then making one of cinema’s most unforgettable exits. After portraying a few more villains and briefly enjoying leading-man status in popcorn fare like “Black Sunday” (1977), Shaw made his own real-life exit in 1978 when he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Sheen, Martin. Conscientious Objector, b. 1940. The man born Ramón Antonio Gerard Estévez has taken several interesting guises in the public sphere. Offscreen, he’s the patriarch of a Hollywood brood including nice-guy actor/director Emilio Estevez and notorious train wreck Charlie Sheen. Onscreen, he’s been Martin Sheen, hotshot young actor in the James Dean mold, giving fiery performances in early pictures like “Badlands” (1973). He’s been Captain Willard, the military hit man in “Apocalypse Now” (1979), portrayed with such go-for-broke intensity that Sheen suffered a heart attack partway through production. He’s been President Jed Bartlet, the flawed but inspiring commander-in-chief of on the extraordinary TV series “The West Wing” (1996-2006). And since the show went off the air, he’s simply been Martin Sheen, one of the industry’s most reliable actors, whether he’s shining in celebrated projects like Martin Scorsese’s crime drama “The Departed” (2006) or slumming in straight-to-video crap like “Echelon Conspiracy” (2009). Beneath all of these people is the real Ramón Estévez, whom admirers have come to know as a man of deep political and religious passions; he’s been arrested more than 60 times for participating in peaceful protests. Given this complex persona, of which acting is just one important part, and the fact that his filmography includes so much truly great work, it’s easy to overlook Sheen’s willingness to sully himself with paycheck gigs in unwatchable dreck; whenever the time comes for Sheen to deliver the goods in something wonderful, he never disappoints. Among his stellar moments, beyond those already mentioned, are heartfelt dramatic turns in family dramas like 1968’s “The Subject Was Roses” and topical stories like the 1974 telefilm “The Execution of Private Slovik”; various appearances as John F. Kennedy in telefilms and miniseries, notably the 1983 mini “Kennedy”; villainous turns in colorful projects such as David Cronenberg’s 1983 horror thriller “The Dead Zone”; a tart performance as a blue-collar worker in Oliver Stone’s 1987 drama “Wall Street”; and a fantastic pre-“West Wing” collaboration with writer Aaron Sorkin, the 1995 romantic comedy “The American President,” with Sheen as a president’s conscience instead of an actual president. More recently, Sheen popped up for a terrific extended cameo as an amiable Southern dad in Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” (2002), and he’s the moral guiding light for a superhero in “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012). Sheen’s voluminous output can be indiscriminate—there’s a lot of dross among his over 200 acting credits—but there’s also craftsmanship that’s as consistent as the actor’s commitment to his offscreen ideals. With his rich mane of hair, his mellifluous speaking voice, and his ability to convey deep personal passion no matter the quality of his cinematic surroundings, Sheen is one of the best, spotty filmography be damned.
Shigeta, James. Actor, 1933-2014. Hawaiian native Shigeta lucked out right at the beginning of his long career, playing the romantic lead in the big-budget musical "Flower Drum Song" (1961), but by 1966, he was playing second fiddle to Elvis Presley in "Paradise, Hawaiian Style." And by the '70s, he was relegated to interchangeable parts as one of Hollywood's top Asian-American character actors, lending his urbane presence to WWII epics such as "Midway" (1977) and appearing in numerous television projects. The vagaries of his career never diminished Shigeta's poise, and he remained a welcome sight in decades of filmed entertainment no matter the size of his role. furthermore, though his resume features plenty of junk, he shows up in at least two great action films. In "The Yakuza" (1975), he's touchingly restrained as an executive hurt by divisions in his family, and in "Die Hard" (1988), he packs an entire likable character into the bit part of ill-fated exec Joe Takagi.
“Shut Up and Sing” (2006). A sharp, entertaining blend of backstage drama and post-9/11 politics, this Barbara Kopple-Cecilia Peck doc tracks country superstars the Dixie Chicks through the aftermath of lead singer Natalie Maines’ infamous anti-Bush remark. When Maines declared her shame in 2003 at sharing a home state with the president who was then ramping up the Iraq war, she became a target for conservative invective and alienated her band from much of its red-state fan base. Kopple and Peck expertly demonstrate how the band members transitioned from riding out the initial shock waves to repositioning themselves as a rock-tinged ensemble forever tainted by controversy. Along the way, the doc shows intriguing glimpses of the group’s collaboration with iconic producer Rick Rubin on an album filled with songs about “the incident,” and demonstrates how America’s attitude toward the president and his war changed by the time the album and accompanying tour hit the marketplace. To the band’s credit, and the film’s slight detriment, the musicians mostly hid internal strife from their chroniclers, but the tensions created by having a self-proclaimed “big mouth” for a lead singer are as apparent as the loyalty the band’s three members have for each other is inspiring.
“Sideways” (2004). Part anguished character study and part wiseass comedy, Alexander Payne’s Oscar-winning homage to a failed writer’s struggle with depression is a thinking person’s exploration of lechery, loss, and love. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a scribe wrestling with loneliness and professional disappointment even as he accompanies his irresponsible pal, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), for a wine-drenched getaway the week before Jack’s marriage. The boys meet a pair of attractive women, Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), but Jack’s willingness to lie about his relationship status in order to bed Stephanie derails the unexpected promise of something real between Maya and Miles. Payne and regular co-writer Jim Taylor, working from a novel by Rex Pickett, avoid archetypes and generalizations, instead sketching a quartet of very specific (and very damaged) characters whose foibles resonate even when they’re behaving badly. All four lead actors hit career highs with their nuanced work, and the picture represents a special apex for Madsen, who scored an Oscar nomination after 20 years of solid work in mostly mediocre movies. Her lived-in luminosity is just one of the picture’s many intoxicants.
"The Silent Partner" (1978). Clever, twisty, and occasionally sadistic, this Canadian crime thriller finds a potent complement to Elliot Gould's rumpled protagonist in Christopher Plummer's relentless baddie. When Plummer robs a bank at which Gould is a teller, Gould imaginatively absconds with most of the cash Plummer intended to purloin. And when the bad guy figures out the teller's ruse, he uses every means imaginable—from threats to murder—to strongarm the teller into ponying up the dough. The Toronto locations add novelty, with the Canadian city appearing as itself and not as a stand-in for an American metropolis, and screenwriter Curtis Hanson displays the same flair for complex plotting he later brought to directorial efforts including "L.A. Confidential" (1997). While Gould is more energetic than usual, Plummer easily commands the movie with a degree of brutality and demented sexuality he's rarely displayed.
“Simon and Garfunkel: The Harmony Game” (2011). Innumerable documentaries have been made about the creation of classic rock albums, but these programs often view the past through the rosy haze of nostalgia. “The Harmony Game,” which explores the making of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” digs deeper. Featuring new interviews with the singing duo and their studio team, plus clips from a controversial Charles Grodin-directed TV special that aired just once in 1969, “The Harmony Game” investigates not only the studio wizardry that generated timeless sounds but also the political climate that inspired Simon’s masterful songwriting. Throughout the piece, it’s fascinating to see how the hyper-articulate Garfunkel complements the more poetic Simon, because their onscreen dynamic indicates how the personal and stylistic differences that created to their onstage harmony also created their offstage disharmony. Best of all, discovering the methodical assembly of immortal songs like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is akin to unveiling the secret history of popular myths.
"A Simple Plan" (1998). An old-fashioned morality tale that unfolds with modern nuances, this may well be—with all due respect to his jubilant "Spider-Man" movies—Sam Raimi's most accomplished picture. The plot is deceptively simple, concerning two brothers who find a plane filled with money outside their small Midwestern town. At the outset, rigid hardware-store manager Hank (Bill Paxton) seems like he'll keep things on the moral straight and narrow while his dim, ne'er-do-well brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) makes bad decisions. But that's not accounting for Hank's Lady Macbeth-like spouse (Bridget Fonda), and it's certainly not accounting for the insidious power of American keeping-up-with-the-Joneses avarice. Utilizing stark locations to unnerving effect, building with insistent rhythm, and seething with an insidious Danny Elfman score, the movie gains tremendous power as it progresses through one rattling plot twist after another. Paxton both plays up and plays against his everyman solidity, and Thornton is overwhelming as the surprising character who ends up seeing things more clearly than anyone else.
“16 Blocks” (2006). It’s been a while since director Richard Donner could be praised for the economy of his movies, so the zippy pace of this back-to-basics thriller is thoroughly refreshing. Similarly, Bruce Willis rouses from the torpor that dampens most of his late-career actioners by giving one of his best performances in the genre. The story is as spare as its title: An aging cop (Willis) has to deliver a talkative witness (Mos Def) to a courtroom 16 blocks from a police station, “3:10 to Yuma” style. Complications arise, natch, when baddies led by crooked cop David Morse conspire to take out the witness before he testifies against them. Filled with seamy New York atmosphere, credible plot twists, and tension that arises from seeing genuinely sympathetic characters endangered, “16 Blocks” is a reminder not only of why a good action movie is such escapist fun, but why Donner and Willis deserve their places among the genre’s grand masters.
Skerritt, Tom. Actor, b. 1933. Skepticism may be the quality that Skerritt portrays more vividly than anyone else, even though he’s known for personifying everything from authority figures to dastardly types. When I picture him, whether in the dark-haired vigor of youth or the silver-maned vitality of later life, I see him as the put-upon captain of an outer-space tugboat in “Alien” (1979), the pragmatic cop confronted by supernatural phenomena in “The Dead Zone” (1983), the fallen counterculture hero in the Stephen King miniseries “Desperation” (2006), and so on. In all of these roles, Skerritt plays men reluctantly confronting extraordinary obstacles, and the clarity with which Skerritt expresses the anguish these men feel is remarkable. Skerritt doesn’t really have a signature role, per se, although his performance as the sheriff policing a strange small town was the center of the quirky David E. Kelley series “Picket Fences” (1992-1996). Instead, he’s a working actor who brings authority and spontaneity to roles of wildly inconsistent size and quality. And given his firm entrenchment in dramatic roles, it’s useful to remember how funny he can be; few actors could hold their own amid Robert Altman-refereed riffing between Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland, but that’s just what Skerritt did in the antiwar classic “M*A*S*H.” (1970).
“Skins” (2002). Rudy Yellow Lodge (Eric Schweig) is a tribal cop watching over his fellow Sioux on the Pine Ridge rez, but he’s got a secret: He also moonlights as a masked avenger trying to eradicate the blights on his people. His reasons for wanting to lift the Sioux from desolation couldn’t be more personal, because his older brother, Mogie (Graham Greene), is a falling-down drunk who personifies the desperate existence forced on Natives by white America. So when the divergent threads of Rudy’s life come together with shocking suddenness, Rudy flails about for a great gesture with which to tell the world outside the rez that the fight hasn’t been beaten out of the Sioux. Cheyenne-Arapaho director Chris Eyre, whose delightful “Smoke Signals” (1998) was the first feature helmed by a Native American, tells an unusual adventure story while also presenting heartbreaking images of reservation life, and he steers clear of providing easy answers. Schweig and the other Native players add atmosphere and passion, but the movie belongs to Greene. Endearing one moment and breathtakingly sad the next, his performance is never less than extraordinary, which makes the impact his character has on Rudy especially profound.
"Sling Blade" (1996). I have no idea if Billy Bob Thornton's directorial debut holds up on repeated viewings, and here's why—seeing this unforgettable drama unfold the first time was just about the most perfect viewing experience I've ever had, so I'm reluctant to tarnish such a powerful memory. Certainly Thornton's slew of awards, including an Oscar for the individualistic screenplay, suggests the picture has staying power, but what I remember is the experience of becoming completely engulfed in the lives of several unusual characters. Thornton of course plays Karl Childers, a damaged soul recently released from mental care after an almost lifelong hospitalization. He killed his mother and her lover, the reasons why only slowly becoming clear. Thrust into a real world for which he's deeply unprepared, Karl builds a surrogate family, only to realize fate has turned so cruelly that his freedom might be the cost of his loved ones' salvation. I'm sure the movie's a bit languorous at 135 minutes, but when I let Daniel Lanois' transcendent score wash over me and savored the performances of Lucas Black, John Ritter, Thornton, and Dwight Yoakam, I sure didn't notice. "Sling Blade" just about broke me open the first time I saw it, and that's all I need to know, thank you very much.
“Smile” (1975). An overreaching but forceful satire of ‘70s American attitudes, this expertly made Michael Ritchie comedy seems at first glance to be an assault on the easy target of beauty pageants. But while a cynical expose of those gruesome flesh parades is part of the agenda, Jerry Belson’s script aims higher by focusing on a used-car salesman (Bruce Dern) who moonlights as a pageant judge. Through a series of events that are quasi-funny and quasi-tragic, the veneer slips off of the salesman’s perpetual grin, causing him to recognize the lies behind his consumerist ideals. In some stretches much more caustic than amusing, the picture is nonetheless mightily entertaining because of the way that perfectly cast supporting players inhabit such bleak archetypes as the harping ex-beauty queen and the suburban everyman ready to snap. Annette O’Toole makes a strong impression as one of the contestants, and the sequences involving the jaded pageant director are priceless. Yet it’s Dern, at the height of his powers, holding the thing together with a performance that reveals he was always a more complex actor than his famed lunatic turns would suggest.
Smith, Charles Martin. Actor/director, b. 1953. Small, bespectacled, and amiable, Smith is that rarity among veteran character players—a performer who can more than hold the screen when given a movie all his own. First making a splash as a nebbishy would-be Casanova in "American Graffiti" (1973) and its sequel "More American Graffiti" (1979), Smith graduated to grown-up roles with the astonishing nature film "Never Cry Wolf" (1983). As a researcher who learns to respect and finally love a family of wolves in the Canadian wilderness, Smith is funny, soulful, heroic, and wild, whether getting into a literal pissing contest with a wolf or casting off his clothes for a run with stampeding caribou. He also cowrote the picture's thoughtful narration. Smith's roots in nerdy characterizations caught up with him in his most famous role, as accountant-turned-crimefighter Oscar Wallace in "The Untouchables" (1987); though primarily utilized for comic and tragic effect, Smith injects memorable details and nuances into every scene. Since helming a slasher flick in the '80s, Smith has alternated between acting and directing, in both film and television. He returned to familiar territory for the 2003 feature "The Snow Walker," which he wrote and directed from a book by "Never Cry Wolf" author Farley Mowat.
Smith, William. Tough son of a bitch, b. 1934. Completely believable as the poetic brute whose seed begets Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Conan the Barbarian" (1982), Smith came up through the ranks of juvenile and bit parts before finding his first niche as the star of several fast-and-furious biker flicks in the late '60s and early '70s. Usually doing his own riding and always displaying his hulking shoulders and biceps, Smith cut an intimidating figure when decked out in leather and denim, adding great credibility to scenes of chaos and carnage. He also displayed charm and wit unusual in character players known for their fibrous physiques, which allowed him to surprise viewers when typecast as thugs and also to acquit himself well when cast in less physical roles. A ubiquitous player in '70s and '80s television, Smith has enjoyed such a peculiar career that he's played both Wyatt Earp and Frankenstein's monster—on episodes of "Fantasy Island." Beloved for his epic fistfight with Clint Eastwood in "Any Which Way You Can" (1980) and his appearances in drive-in junk along the lines of "Invasion of the Bee Girls" (1973), Smith continues to work steadily as an actor and as a cartoon voice performer, his cultish fan base well served by sites including the thorough www.williamsmith.org.
"The Snow Walker" (2003). It's the early 50s, and Charlie (Barry Pepper) is an arrogant ex-WWII pilot flying freight across the rugged Canadian tundra. At one of his desolate stops, he accepts a payoff in order to transport young Inuit Kanaalaq (Annabella Piugattuk) to civilization so she can receive treatment for tuberculosis. This being an adaptation of a Farley Mowat man-against-nature tale, Charlie crashes in the middle of nowhere after deviating from his flight plan, so he and Kanaalaq have to forge a primitive existence once they burn through their few modern supplies. Charles Martin Smith, the actor/filmmaker who starred in the best Mowat adaptation, 1983's "Never Cry Wolf," brings many lessons from that breathtaking movie to "The Snow Walker." He shoots in barren locations, often using the unbroken horizon to underline desperate emotional states, and he punctuates the film with enough pictorial beauty (radiant sunsets, exotic animals, the gossamer Northern Lights) that viewers understand why the adventure changes Charlie. The principal storyline of a callow Caucasian learning to respect Native ways is familiar terrain, but Pepper undercuts the predictability nicely, imbuing Charlie with latent soulfulness that blossoms when the conditions are right. Piugattuk, a 19-year-old Inuit making her movie debut, is a marvel. She's lovely without being anachronistically movie-star glamorous, her demonstrations of ancient Inuit skills feel utterly authentic, and she's affecting but never cloying. Yes, the movie is slight, and the cuts back to civilization that feature James Cromwell as Charlie's anguished boss are well-done but perfunctory, but the rapturous views of the Canadian wilderness more than compensate for any shortcomings.
“S.O.B.” (1981). Watching this movie outside of Hollywood is a very different experience from watching it in Tinseltown. Seen from afar, Blake Edwards’ perverse farce about a movie director insanely derailing his career by shooting a porno fairy tale is ludicrous and crudely funny. Seen from inside the belly of the beast, the movie is like a documentary. Sure, the arch types with which Edwards fills the movie are played for laughs, but there’s a core of bitter truth to each character. The director who goes nuts because his movie flops? The squeaky-clean star who shakes up her image with a nude scene? The flamboyant Dr. Feelgood who flits about with caustic wit and an ample supply of pharmaceuticals? Some of these personalities cut so close to reality that they’re more sad than funny. Edwards’ style of broad physical humor, labored verbal gags, and leering sex jokes had already started to lose its appeal by the early ’80s, but his skewering of Hollywood is brutal, and he takes the movie’s comedy to shockingly uncouth extremes. He’s also gifted with a dream cast for this sort of thing: Julie Andrews, Larry Hagman, William Holden, Robert Mulligan, Robert Preston, and many other seasoned pros relish sticking it to the movie industry.
"Soldier Blue" (1970). One could easily program an entire festival of movies about white people naturalized into the Native American community, but the block of such pictures from the '70s would require a disclaimer because of their frequently fetishistic violence. Case in point: "Soldier Blue," an offbeat adventure tale that turns into an "Oh, the humanity" bloodbath. Candice Bergen, flexing her comedy chops well before they were broadly appreciated, plays a white woman converted to Native ways, and Peter Strauss plays a jingoistic soldier who becomes her protector and her helpless charge, depending on the scene. The duo endures an odyssey through a sun-baked landscape that features the requisite light interludes and strange characters (Donald Pleasance alert!), the journey serving to enlighten Strauss about why Natives are more than cannon fodder. It's really all a prelude to an anguished re-creation of the type of massacres that distinguished white America's drive West, and the filmmakers clearly believed nothing succeeds like excess. "Soldier Blue" is odd and histrionic, but also weirdly compelling.
“Solitary Man” (2010). Because I never quite bought into Michael Douglas’ caddish screen persona of the 1980s, I was surprised how much I enjoyed this riff on what sort of person the archetypal Michael Douglas character might have become in advanced middle age. Douglas plays Ben Kalmen, a disgraced New York City car dealer trying to bounce back from a divorce and the demise of his business, which were caused by his reckless indulgences in, respectively, adultery and creative accounting. All charm and flash, Kalman refuses to act his age, perpetually courting younger women and trying to persuade everyone he meets that he’s the same killer-instinct businessman he was in his prime. When Kalman goes too far by sleeping with the college-age daughter of his current girlfriend, his house-of-cards lifestyle falls apart immediately, and the black-comedy joy of the movie is watching Kalman try to ride the wave as a metaphorical tsunami lays waste to his entire existence. Douglas’ smug vibe has rarely been used to such poignant effect, and he commands the movie from start to finish with one of his finest performances. He’s more than capably abetted by a sterling supporting cast, including Jesse Eisenberg, Jenna Fischer, Mary-Louise Parker, Imogen Poots, Susan Sarandon, and, in a fun bit of wink-wink pop-culture referencing, frequent Douglas foil Danny DeVito.
“Sorcerer” (1977). After scoring with “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” to say nothing of cutting an obnoxious swath through Hollywood with self-aggrandizing interviews, William Friedkin was due for comeuppance. Unfortunately, his inevitable fall from grace relegated an interesting film to semi-obscurity. Freidkin was asking for trouble when he decided to remake the French classic “The Wages of Fear,” and he did himself no favors by giving his version a nonsensically supernatural title, “Sorcerer,” which understandably made people expect another “Exorcist.” Instead, “Sorcerer” is a brutal, weird saga about four men running away from trouble and landing in South America, where they take jobs driving trucks filled with explosives through the jungle to a remote construction site. With its cryptic approach to character and its mesmerizing electronic score by Tangerine Dream, the picture is a fever dream of human desperation, especially during the infamously elaborate sequence of a truck crossing a rope bridge in the rain; this scene alone generates excruciating tension with its obsessive detail. Roy Scheider, the most recognizable face in the cast, delivers a characteristically intense performance, though all of the actors are merely colors that Friedkin uses to create a disturbing portrait of souls battered by capricious fate.
"The Squid and the Whale" (2005). Jeff Daniels burns his nice-guy image to a crisp as a shitheel author going through a nasty divorce in Noah Baumbach's terrific dramedy. When has-been writer Bernard (Daniels) splits from rising literary star Joan (Laura Linney) in '80s Brooklyn, things get messy for their two kids, petulant high schooler Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and his impressionable younger brother Frank (Owen Klein). The prevailing impression left by the movie is that Bernard's an unremitting son of a bitch who resents everything and everyone around him, but in truth, Baumbach turns his critical eye on everybody in the story, cutting Joan and Walt the most slack. Crackling dialogue abounds, as when Frank insists he's a "philistine" or when the family's deeply annoying tennis coach (William Baldwin) calls every guy he meets "brother." Anna Paquin gets thrown into the mix as a sensual coed who catches the eye of two men in the family, and the whole ensemble meshes with precision and electricity.
“Split Image” (1982). Though unquestionably lurid, this drama about a family’s attempts to wrest their son from a cult has the excitement of an action movie, and it benefits from letter-perfect casting across the board. Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Ashley play well-off parents whose naïve son (Michael O’Keefe) gets drawn into a cult when he falls for a spacey dreamgirl played by Karen Allen. The leader of the cult is soft-spoken Peter Fonda, whose casting cleverly plays on his identification with ’60s counterculture, but the best synthesis between actor and role involves James Woods, as the manic operative whom the parents hire to kidnap and then deprogram their son. As filmed by journeyman director Ted Kotcheff, the deprogramming scenes are trippy, frightening, and flamboyantly entertaining. Since the picture slowly shifts from topical drama to cliffhanger adventure, it may strike some viewers as cheap exploitation of a troubling social ill, but at least the filmmakers devote a few scenes to illustrating the allure of Fonda’s cult before advancing into more adrenalized goings-on.
Spradlin, G.D. Scowler, 1920-2011. "Extreme prejudice." By hitting those two words just right as the cold-blooded officer who gives Martin Sheen his marching orders in “Apocalypse Now” (1979), elegant Southerner Spradlin epitomized the sort of dispassionate evil for which his characters were known. While actually quite versatile (he shifted comfortably between comedies and dramas), Spradlin was most effective playing charismatic heavies and corrupt muckety-mucks, of which his Senator Geary character in “The Godfather, Part II” (1974) is a great example. Following a run of enjoyable performances in the late ‘90s, notably a wry bit as a preacher befuddled by the weirdness of indie filmmaking in “Ed Wood” (1994), Spradlin closed the door on his enviable screen career by retiring, thus depriving the screen of one of its most reliable performers.
“Spring Forward” (1999). Contemplative and relaxed, Tom Gilroy’s elegant character drama lets two fine actors revel in their characters without the pressure of expediting a contrived plot. Ned Beatty plays Murph, a middle-aged municipal laborer in a small Connecticut town. His new coworker is Paul (Liev Schrieber), an ex-con with a philosopher’s soul and a brawler’s temper. Gilroy employs a rigid structure, with the passage of a year represented by a series of long conversation scenes that are bridged by lyrical interludes. As Murph wrestles with late-life issues and Paul adjusts to existence outside prison, the characters bond in a fashion that’s credible and never treacly; both reveal unexpected depths that feel utterly organic. Though the leisurely execution may fail to excite some viewers, it’s a rare pleasure to see Beatty play a person and not a grotesque; he’s quietly remarkable. Schreiber overreaches at points, but he too hits a strong emotional pitch. Especially given the inviting Northeast landscapes with which Gilroy surrounds his actors, “Spring Forward” is warm and intimate from start to finish.
“Standing in the Shadows of Motown” (2002). This music documentary’s triumphant performance of the soul classic “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” provides a tidy metaphor for the whole compelling film: As the previously unheralded musicians known as the Funk Brothers lay down a rafter-rattling backing track, Joan Osborne kills in the spotlight with dazzling vocals. Since the goal of this picture is celebrating the players who appeared on nearly every Motown hit during the label’s glory days in the 1960s and early 1970s, it’s somehow appropriate that they’re still getting eclipsed by the charisma of a great singer. And if there’s some broken-heartedness involved here, that’s part of the sad and wonderful story as well. Adapted from Alan Slutsky’s celebrated nonfiction book, “Standing in the Shadows” focuses on the revolving cast of musicians who provided the continuity from one great Motown act to the next, integrating influences from gospel, jazz, and R&B to create the signature sound of Hitsville, U.S.A. Director Paul Justman lays on the stunts pretty thick, from narrative-style re-creations of key moments to a star-studded tribute concert, and the razzle-dazzle somewhat obscures the message about the men Berry Gordy left behind when he moved Motown from Detroit to L.A. in the early 1970s. But the music is so spectacular that the movie gives a tantalizing taste of the bigger story, and ultimately the performances speak more eloquently about the subjects’ importance than any anecdote or recollection ever could.
“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982). Though my endless affection for this sci-fi classic is rooted in the afternoons I spent watching reruns of the original “Star Trek” series as a child, there’s a world of difference between the campy melodrama of the series and the rousing adventure of Nicholas Meyer’s movie. As director and (uncredited) writer, Meyer famously borrowed from seafaring literary classics like “Horatio Hornblower” and “Moby-Dick” to give the second big-screen outing of Kirk, McCoy, and Spock a larger-than-life quality. The nautical treatment was a genius move, inspiring everything from the ahoy-matey interaction of the crew to the submarine-style showdown between Kirk and his old nemesis, genetically engineered superman Khan (Ricardo Montalban). So while the acting of the leading players is predictably florid—the movie does star William Shatner, after all—the sheer gusto of the storyline, combined with the ending that makes full-grown fanboys weep, distinguishes “Wrath of Khan” one of the most entertaining adventure films ever made, a sci-fi swashbuckler with heart.
“Still Bill” (2009). There’s a long tradition of “Where are they now?” docs about music stars who’ve departed the pop charts, and these pictures are generally hinged on the drama of a comeback attempt. Offering a refreshing change of pace is “Still Bill,” a touching visit with soul singer Bill Withers, who scored with hits like “Lean on Me” in the ’70s and then walked away from music when the biz became too crass for his tastes, and when, by his own admission, his laid-back style went out of fashion. Rather than embittered, Withers is grateful and wise, a 70-year-old family man who records tunes in his home studio but doesn’t release them; he says there’s no point in returning to the music business until (or unless) he feels that old hunger again. As we watch Withers amble through events like a concert paying tribute to his songbook and a visit to his tiny hometown, the singer makes a quietly powerful impression with his sincerity and warmth. Then, when he speaks to a group of young stutterers about his own difficulties as a stutterer until the age of 28, it’s moving to see Withers reminded of what an amazing road he’s walked. Vintage TV clips and audio tracks fill “Still Bill” with the Withers of yesteryear, but the Withers of today is so engaging that viewers understand why returning to the rat race of pop music would be a comedown, not a comeback.
"Still Crazy" (1998). Crude and bittersweet, this breezy ode to classic rock has a vibe so true to the glory days of swaggering Brit pop stars that one's tempted to hold up a lighter during the big song that closes the movie. Stephen Rea plays a washed-up musician who tries to recapture past glory by reuniting his fractious '70s band Strange Fruit. The Fruit's colorful history comprises bits and pieces of other bands' lore, right down to a fragile, Syd Barrett-like lost genius. Billy Connolly, happily vulgar as always, plays the Fruit's trusty roadie; he enters the movie like gangbusters with a trunk full of lascivious souvenirs. The plotting is a bit contrived, but the interplay among the crusty ex-rockers is bright and lewd, with Bill Nighy stealing the show as the Fruit's lead singer. Real-life rockers including Foreigner's Mick Jones collaborated on the Fruit's faux classic rock, which adds a fair amount of authenticity.
“Stonewall Uprising” (2010). In 1969, the New York Police Department’s crackdown on Manhattan homosexual hangout the Stonewall Club was the last straw for gay men who had lived in the shadows for generations: They fought back and quickly outnumbered the shocked police force, taking to the streets in a mass protest that, eventually, led to the formation of New York’s storied Gay Pride parade and the relaxation of antiquated morals laws. In this riveting documentary about one of the great moments in American civil disobedience, gays and police offers recall that transforming time, summoning the terror of living under the threat of persecution and the rage of wanting nothing more than to experience life openly. Interviews with cops are maddening because they reveal how deliberate the NYPD’s anti-gay bias was back in the day, and interviews with men who participated in the so-called “Stonewall riots” are moving because of the courage it took to fight the power.
“The Straight Story” (1999). From anyone else, the tale of a geezer riding his tractor from Iowa to Wisconsin for a last visit with his dying brother would seem pretty eccentric. From director David Lynch, it’s an unexpected detour into relative normalcy. Eschewing his signature pervy surrealism, Lynch lets this sweet narrative unfold more or less on its own power, relying on unvarnished camerawork and a career-capping performance by likeably grizzled Richard Farnsworth. Drawn from real events, “The Straight Story” explores the power of simple ideas and emotions, from the stamina it takes Alvin Straight (Farnsworth) to endure fatigue and inclement weather, to the openness he finds when confronting his estranged sibling. Sissy Spacek and Harry Dean Stanton are along for the ride, but the movie is primarily about Farnsworth’s journey from reticence to a kind of countrified heroism.
“Stranger Than Fiction” (2006). A little whimsy goes a long way, and that’s why this deft piece about a man who discovers that he’s a fictional character works so wonderfully: Screenwriter Zach Helm milks the central device for all it’s worth while still grounding the film in credible, albeit highly optimistic, character bits. Will Ferrell’s soft-spoken turn in the lead role is a welcome relief from his histrionic turns in tentpole comedies, and it’s a bummer so few audiences went with him on this creative detour. But for those who discover the movie, Ferrell’s touching performance is just one of many pleasures. There’s also Maggie Gyllenhaal’s winning turn as a no-nonsense love interest, Emma Thompson’s dryly funny portrayal of a writer riddled with angst when she realizes her fictional endeavors have real-world consequences, and especially Dustin Hoffman’s effortlessly funny appearance as a cranky college professor. The device of Thompson’s voiceover guiding Ferrell’s actions is the attention-getter here, but it does what the best devices do: brings viewers into an outlandish world where interesting people live and interesting things happen.
"Streets of Fire" (1984). There's never been another movie like Walter Hill's self-proclaimed "rock and roll fable," and there are two good reasons why: The movie flopped, and it doesn't work start to finish. Having said that, Hill offers a string of incredibly exciting sequences, and he fills the movie with loopy characters played by game actors who get the joke. Sure, leads Diane Lane and Michael Pare come across blandly as a kidnapped rock star and the tough guy sent to rescue her, but they both look terrific in their archetypal roles. Willem Dafoe adds a needed touch of weirdness as the biker baddie who abducts Lane, his pasty skin especially pronounced when he's strolling around in vinyl overalls, and Rick Moranis plays the irritating comic foil to the hilt. This one's all about the music, though, from the Jim Steinman-penned epic "Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young" to the neo-soul hit "I Can Dream About You." Hill even finds a place for Marine Jahan, Jennifer Beals' dance double in "Flashdance" (1983), seen grinding atop a table in a biker bar. Pure effervescent style without even a pretense of substance, this picture is the zenith of Hill's image-making and the nadir of his storytelling.
“Suddenly” (1957). Here’s one of the more peculiar factoids in film history: Frank Sinatra starred in not one but two thrillers about conspiracies to assassinate political figures in the years immediately preceding JFK’s murder. While no doubt a total coincidence, the end result is that Sinatra and the others involved in both pictures thought it wise to suppress the films after that dark November 1963 day in Dallas. One of the pictures, 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate,” was resurrected and now enjoys a sterling reputation, but don’t mistake the earlier picture, “Suddenly,” for a mere film-history footnote. A no-nonsense black-and-white programmer that delivers the goods in a brisk 75 minutes, “Suddenly” is a political thriller from a simpler time, so the conspiracy is about as sophisticated as a run-of-the-mill bank holdup, but that’s part of what makes the picture effective. The simplicity of the scheme keeps the focus on the disturbing reality that the most terrifying forces in the world are individuals so disassociated they feel driven to tear down structures in which they no longer participate. Containing one of Sinatra’s finest performances, “Suddenly” deserves a better fate that its current residence in the public domain, because even the best prints available, like the one shown occasionally on Turner Classic Movies, are quite shoddy.
"Sweet Smell of Success" (1957). On a par with "All About Eve" (1950) as one of the most acid-tongued movies ever made, this veiled take on Walter Winchell swaggers onscreen with the blasting horns of Elmer Bernstein's score and the deep shadows of James Wong Howe's photography, then jabs and jolts for 96 brutal minutes. J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is a King of All Media at a time that title meant something, and he uses his power to play entertainers and politicians like they're his personal chess pieces. When his little sister hooks up with a musician J.J. deems unworthy, he assigns low-rent publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to break up the relationship. What happens from there rattles J.J.'s world on every level, igniting verbal confrontations that spawn such one-of-a-kind barbs as "I'd hate to take a bite out of you—you're a cookie full of arsenic." Featuring Curtis' best performance and one of Lancaster's sharpest portrayals, the movie has special charms for New Yorkers, as the frenetic pace and vivid location photography capture Manhattan's excitement in a way few films not directed by Sidney Lumet ever have.
"Swimming Pool" (2003). Proving once again that the creative mind is fertile subject matter for twisty thrillers, Francois Ozon's meticulously plotted brain-teaser concerns a lonely mystery writer (Charlotte Rampling) whose quest for peace and quiet in the French countryside is disturbed by the arrival of an unwanted housemate. Though Rampling's performance is terrific, taking her character from brittle to ballsy with great flair, it's hard to avoid being distracted by starlet Ludivine Sagnier, as the uninhibited blonde who rattles Rampling's ordered life. Not only does Sagnier play a showy role as a loud, promiscuous brat, but she's frequently naked. And while Ozon displays plenty of prurient interest with his lingering shots of her body, the way her sexuality overwhelms the film actually becomes part of the story; even Rampling's character finds herself aroused not so much by Sagnier's character, but by the freedom her sensual lifestyle represents. The sexy fun doesn't last, of course, and when things go awry, Ozon orchestrates the repercussions with a master's hand. The ending's a bit of a cop-out, but arguing about whether the filmmaker played fair is half the fun of watching cinematic puzzles like this one.
“The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (1974). Featuring an offbeat cat-and-mouse game that plays out beneath the streets of New York City, this engrossing thriller comprises equal measures of black humor and gritty violence. When a quartet of machine-gun-toting thugs hijacks a subway train, the job of defusing the situation falls to Transit Authority cop Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau). Rumpled urbanite Matthau is perfect casting, conveying both consternation and “I love this crazy city” amusement, while iron-willed Brit Robert Shaw provides a frightening counterpart whom viewers never doubt is capable of atrocities. Working from a novel by John Godey, screenwriter Peter Stone and director Joseph Sargent expertly balance thrills, surprises, and just enough character bits to ground the escapist fun. The moody location photography creates vivid atmosphere, and vivid supporting turns by Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and Dick O’Neill contribute an extra layer of Big Apple authenticity.
"The Tall Guy" (1989). Screenwriter Richard Curtis' first attempt at perfecting his witty rom-com formula was this peculiar Brit comedy starring Jeff Goldblum as the straight man in a popular comedy team (his partner is Curtis regular Rowan Atkinson) who's stuck in existential malaise. Goldlbum's life gets more exciting when he meets a saucy nurse (Emma Thompson) and wins the lead in a crass musical version of "The Elephant Man." Many of the tropes that Curtis later brought to "Four Weddings and a Funeral" (1994) and other pictures are present here, from ribald comedy to loopy supporting characters. While not entirely persuasive—Goldlbum's anxious vibe is a little out of sync with Curtis' blithe spirit—the movie nonetheless features a handful of truly memorable gags, as well as that cinematic rarity, a sex scene that's both funny and spicy.
Tangerine Dream. Rock group, founded 1967. For the better part of the 1980s, Tangerine Dream, the German electronic-music ensemble founded by primary composer Edgar Froese and comprising an ever-shifting roster of musicians, provided the most consistently arresting and atmospheric alternative to orchestral movie scoring. The band’s dense synthesizer pieces—throbbing and relentless when grounded with rock rhythms, eerily beautiful when allowed to drift into the shapeless ether of pure mechanical sound—perfectly suited the style-over-substance aesthetic of the Greed Decade. First recruited to U.S. movie work by William Friedkin, who hired Froese and co. to create the otherworldly music that drives his ambitious thriller “Sorcerer” (1977), the group specialized in genre pictures, but they also lent their undulating beeps and bleeps to sexy romances including “Risky Business” (1983) and “Vision Quest” (1985). The band’s most prolific period wasn’t without controversy; they engendered ill will when their music replaced an orchestral score by Jerry Goldsmith for the U.S. release of Ridley Scott’s fantasy flick “Legend” (1985), and they were dogged by accusations of plagiarism. Predictably, their hot streak ended when synths went out of fashion in the early ’90s. How well their ’80s movie music has aged is a matter of taste, but it’s hard to deny the power of the propulsive shrieks that power “Sorcerer,” the cascading waves that drive “Thief” (1981), or the sexy soundscapes that permeate “Near Dark” (1987).
"Taps" (1981). Though probably best remembered for its fortuitous casting of future stars in youth roles, Harold Becker's cool-headed film of Devery Freeman's novel stands up just fine as an unusual military drama. When the students at an elite military school receive the double blows of a death in their academic family and the threat of closure, they do what soldiers do: They stand their ground, laying in sandbags and taking up sniper positions with their M16s to resist anyone who tries to take them off their beloved campus. Approaching questions about the military mind from a number of perspectives, the movie is provocative and tense, with a handful of fierce performances. George C. Scott, smartly cast in the Patton mold, kicks off the story as the students' mentor, then hands the protagonist reins to Timothy Hutton, characteristically intense as the students' leader. Tom Cruise and Sean Penn set off sparks as Hutton's closest pals, and Ronny Cox brings memorable tenderness to the role of the grown-up soldier charged with shutting down the student insurrection.
“Targets” (1968). The tenacity that has allowed Peter Bogdanovich to survive one of the most tumultuous careers in Hollywood history was on display right from his first real movie, which he cobbled together from current events and hand-me-down elements. The story goes that Roger Corman said his young protégé could make a movie if Bogdanovich used Boris Karloff, who owed the producer some screen time, and clips from another Corman-Karloff venture, the B-grade horror flick “The Terror” (1963). Ingeniously spinning a narrative that put an aging movie star on a collision course with a baby-faced sniper (the latter character inspired by a then-recent Texas tragedy), Bogdanovich and cowriter Polly Platt crafted a story that captured a cultural moment and gave a Hollywood legend an elegant send-off. By intercutting the sniper material with the Karloff story, which concerns a man contemplating a life spent scaring audiences, Bogdanovich draws sharp parallels between cinematic bloodletting and real-life horror. He also demonstrates the narrative classicism that became his trademark, and somehow finds time to contribute a solid acting performance. Though “Targets” wasn’t Karloff’s last picture, it was the most resonant grace note amid the exploitation-movie cacophony of his declining years.
Taylor, Lili. Actor, b. 1967. Taylor found an unenviable niche in her earliest appearances, playing unglamorous young women whom venal males abuse. She played the type for laughs in "Say Anything..." (1989), wherein she sings a string of angry tunes about an ex named Joe. Then she played the type for poignancy in "Dogfight" (1990), in which her unattractive character is the target of a cruel prank. Apparently realizing the limitations of her options in Hollywood, Taylor began exploring the world of indie movies, where her blazing intelligence was more broadly appreciated. So by 1996, she was balancing perfunctory roles in big-budget flicks with expansive leading parts in low-budget ones. That year, she was a second-tier baddie in the Mel Gibson thriller "Ransom" and the star of the amusingly provocative "I Shot Andy Warhol." As volatile feminist Valerie Solonas in the latter picture, Taylor gives perhaps her most incendiary performance, mining Solanas' strident political agenda for humor, drama, and tough social commentary. Taylor continues to impress in eclectic projects, scoring an Emmy nomination for her run on the HBO drama "Six Feet Under" and reteaming with "Warhol" director Mary Harron for "The Notorious Bettie Page" (2005).
“Teeth” (2007). Delightfully wrong on many levels, writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein’s parable about a woman with a deadly mutation is a comedy for those who like their feminist tracts delivered with a self-knowing smirk. Fresh-faced Jess Wiexler stars as Dawn, a young woman born with that most fear-inducing of mythical afflictions, the vagina dentata. Because young Dawn’s privates bite back, Lichtenstein puts her in contact with a collection of sexist male archetypes, from a doomed rapist to a doctor who gets handsy with the wrong patient. While Lichtenstein delivers the goods in terms of showing what would happen if “defenseless” women could retaliate in extreme circumstances, he also uses the outlandish subject matter as a springboard for vicious jokes and for a revenge storyline bloody enough to make Charles Bronson blush. Not for the faint of heart, given its shots of detached members and such, “Teeth” is good unclean fun that conveys a powerful political message about the place women still occupy in many strata of American society; it also joins “Shawn of the Dead” in the microscopic genre of contemporary movies that effectively mesh genuine comedy and genuine horror.
“Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” (1969). Long-blacklisted filmmaker Abraham Polonsky roared back to cinematic life with this artful postmodern Western about a Native American youth trapped by his temper and his circumstances, and about the morally outraged white man forced to pursue him. The piece may sound awfully arch in conception, and in some ways the narrative is hand-wringingly obvious, but an intoxicating sort of ambiguity pervades the film. The titular Native American character (Robert Blake), is unredeemably violent, but he’s also a victim of the way his people are ghettoized by the U.S. government. Similarly, the stoic white pursuer (Robert Redford) is as much as son of a bitch as he is a relentless lawman. The piece is so full of contradictory ideas about right and wrong that it ends up being a provocative meditation on justice and racism, even if Polonsky ultimately fails to convey a clear thematic perspective. The piece is also stunningly beautiful to behold, with ace cinematographer Conrad Hall finding visual splendor in everything from wood-paneled hotel rooms to craggy desert mountains. Blake is extraordinary as well, fueling all of his pugnacious energy into a performance that’s as compelling as it is frightening.
"Tender Mercies" (1983). The passerby doesn't mean to be impertinent when she asks "Were you really Mac Sledge?" And Mac doesn't mean to be vague when he responds "I guess I was." But that exchange perfectly captures the wistful flavor of "Tender Mercies," the acutely observed drama of a man dragged reluctantly to a reunion with his past. Faded country singer Mac (Robert Duvall) has long since parted ways with his youthful dreams and indiscretions, but when a young musician prods him toward a comeback, Mac has to confront his glories and his failures. He soon finds himself troubled by the women in his life, from his patient spouse (Tess Harper) to his shrewish ex (Betty Buckley) to his reckless daughter (Ellen Barkin). Duvall turns what could have been a passive role into a symphony of regret, frustration, and carefully guarded hope, with Horton Foote's masterful screenplay showing him the way. The soft-spoken but deeply affecting picture netted Duvall the only Oscar (so far) of his celebrated career.
"Thank You for Smoking" (2006). Politically incorrect down to its very bones, Jason Reitman's brisk adaptation of Christopher Buckley's satirical novel presents ethically challenged tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) as its protagonist, if not exactly as its hero. Over the course of the movie, Nick combats an anti-smoking Congressman, campaigns to get more cigarettes into Hollywood movies, dallies with a pretty investigative reporter, and tries to convince his inquisitive son that he's not the devil. Along the way, he riffs pro-tobacco spin with masterful ease and only the faintest glimmers of guilt. Deftly portraying a media age in which the most charismatic liar wins, Reitman's picture is gentler than might be expected, but nonetheless jammed with priceless bits. Of special note is Rob Lowe's letter-perfect cameo as a Hollywood super-agent who epitomizes his industry's breathtaking narcissism. Eckhart, finding a terrific middle ground between the icky villains and bland heroes he's played in other movies, exudes blinding charm.
"That's the Way of the World" (1975). While the superficial appeal of this underseen drama is captured in a sequence of Harvel Keitel dancing on roller skates while Earth, Wind & Fire bring the noise as the rink's house band, there's more to this picture than '70s kitsch. Keitel plays an ace record producer who's devoted to a hip black ensemble called the Group (played by EW&F) until he gets embroiled with a whitebread family act, whose leader is portrayed by none other than Mr. Miss America, Bert Parks. As the picture progresses, layer upon layer of record-biz sleaze is revealed, and viewers are shown meticulous recording sessions wherein Keitel layers everything from French horns to harps onto the family act's lame-o single. While Keitel's performance is largely indifferent, the insider stuff is so credible that it's creepy. In one choice bit, a retired exec opines that it takes "payola, layola, viola, and drugola" to score a pop hit. The details may be more persuasive than the movie as a whole, but EW&F tracks like the title tune and "Shining Star" add spunk, and the family act's tune is a masterful evocation of godawful '70s schmaltz.
"Thief" (1981). Hard as it may be to imagine a movie in which Jim Belushi and Willie Nelson not only costar with James Caan but fit comfortably into his signature brand of macho drama, here's the proof. Michael Mann's first theatrical feature is potent story about an unrepentant criminal who comes close to living his version of the American dream. Probing deeply into the criminal psyche, Mann makes a subtle point about judging those on the wrong side of the law; Caan's character is a saint compared to the monstrous gangsters and corrupt cops he encounters, and he fully understands why he's made his choices in life. Alternating between flashy, music-driven sequences and long conversational scenes, Mann uses his stellar cast imaginatively, coiling a noose around his lead character so deftly we barely sense its presence till the noose is pulled tight. Gripping, tough, and frequently imitated, "Thief" overcomes its rough edges with the power of Mann's humanistic storytelling and the allure of his seductive visuals.
"The Thing From Another World" (1951) and "The Thing" (1982). These very different adaptations of John W. Campbell Jr.'s short story "Who Goes There?" complement each other beautifully. The original, nominally directed by Christian Nyby but overseen by producer Howard Hawks, is a tight thriller about arctic researchers who dig a space monster from a block of ice. Putting the researchers under assault by the harsh weather and the harsher critter ups the tension considerably, leading to one of the best B-movies of the '50s sci-fi boom. The 1982 remake, by stylist extraordinaire John Carpenter, makes good and bad changes to the formula. On the plus side, Carpenter adds a creepy shape-shifting element that turns his movie into a study in paranoia. On the negative side, the director amps up the gore to a nauseating level. I'm forever torn by Carpenter's movie, because the mood is intoxicating—those widescreen arctic vistas, that ominous music, the terrific cast led by a wonderfully annoyed Kurt Russell—but the blood-and-guts stuff is just too much.
"The Third Miracle" (1999). Given how the deaths of Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II sparked talk of expediting the canonization process, it's interesting to watch Agnieszka Holland's provocative movie about the question of canonizing a far less celebrated figure. In the ruminative drama, Ed Harris plays a priest assigned to investigate reports of a bleeding statue. Chosen because his erratic past suggests he'll dismiss the case without much fuss, Harris surprises himself by giving credence to petitioners' claims and by falling for the daughter (Anne Heche) of the woman whose statue sparked the situation. This inevitably causes friction with Harris' church superior (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who sees the canonization as dangerously unorthodox. Offering a thoughtful view on a process clouded in myth and mystery, and also posing challenging questions for believers and nonbelievers alike, "The Third Miracle" is about internecine politics and human fallacy as much as it's about religion.
"Thirteen Days" (2000). Taking a step away from the mythmaking that usually clouds dramatizations of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Roger Donaldson's taut political thriller looks at the situation through the eyes of Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), JFK's special assistant. Since O'Donnell is an insider who's been with the president since before he took office, he's both a fly on the wall during tense standoffs with military officials and a voice of reason able to confront JFK in a way others can't. The sum effect is that we get to see the president go through the trauma as a human being. The interplay between Costner's laid-back persona and his character's intense situation gives him lots of room to move dramatically, and he's gracious when he steps aside to let other actors shine. Chief among them are Bruce Greenwood (as JFK) and Steven Culp (as RFK), who go way past mimicry; though their channeling of legendary figures is startling, they play characters, not caricatures. The rogues' gallery of trigger-happy military officials (played by Kevin Conway, Ed Lauter, and Bill Smitrovich, among others) is frightening, and the filmmakers offer a wink-wink nod to the Camelot era by casting Christopher Lawford, Peter Lawford's lookalike son, in a key role as a pilot.
“This Film Is Not Yet Rated” (2006). Edgy documentarian Kirby Dick tackles the mysteries of the MPAA ratings system with this jaunty, mischievous film, which is really more of an activist exercise than pure nonfiction. While initially tackling troubling hypocrisies like the fact that violent content is more permissible in American films than sexual content, or the fact that gay-themed stories are scrutinized more closely than straight-themed ones, Dick soon veers in a different direction. Becoming preoccupied with the anonymity of movie raters, he employs a private detective to ferret out the identities of those who make their living considering the difference between “PG-13” puerility and “R” raunch. The first half of the picture is more effective and provocative, with notable and lesser-known filmmakers detailing their infuriating experiences with the MPAA; John Waters is predictably entertaining and Kimberly Pierce is almost heroically forceful. While the unmasking section of the picture is inherently dramatic and often very funny, the MPAA’s lack of personal accountability is somewhat beside the point: The larger controversy involves an industry kowtowing to the religious right by nominally enforcing “community morals” while really demonstrating cynical marketplace timidity. For those who’ve never considered the machinations of Hollywood’s bizarre system of self-censorship, Dick’s movie is an eye-opener. For those who share his frustrations, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” is provocative and insightful, but not entirely the scorched-earth screed that Dick seems to have envisioned.
"The Three Burials of Meliquades Estrada" (2005). A kinder and gentler (but really neither kind nor gentle) cousin to Sam Peckinpah's seedy "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" (1974), Tommy Lee Jones' directorial debut meanders here and there, but makes a vivid point about the bond between a Texan cowboy (Jones) and his illegal immigrant pal (Julio Cedillo). It also captures incredibly vivid vignettes of small-town life on both sides of the border. Told in a disjointed fashion that maximizes tension and allows characters to reveal layers gradually, the picture sways somewhat comfortably between morbid humor and genuine heartbreak. Complementing Jones' affecting work in the lead role, Cedillo, Levon Helm, January Jones, Melissa Leo, Barry Pepper, and Dwight Yoakam all give persuasive performances as lonely souls suffocated by unsatisfactory lives. Chris Menges' photography is so evocative you'll almost feel sand crackling in your throat during sequences set in the rugged desert.
“Three Days of the Condor” (1975). One of the most entertaining conspiracy thrillers of the ’70s, “Three Days” adds an exciting jolt of romantic escapism to a genre mostly defined by doom and gloom. Executed with intelligence and taste by director Sydney Pollock, the picture follows a CIA analyst, Joseph Turner (Robert Redford), who returns from a coffee break to discover that everyone in his office has been assassinated. Suddenly on the run and unsure who to trust, he has to discern not only who’s after his people but also whether he caused the carnage by discovering a provocative secret. Caught up in the exciting intrigue are Turner’s calculating CIA handler (Cliff Robertson), a cold-blooded hit man (Max Von Sydow), and the unsuspecting ski-shop customer (Faye Dunaway) whom Turner kidnaps as part of a desperate escape maneuver. Mostly ditching her usual iciness to play a flesh-and-blood everywoman roused by her situation, Dunaway conjures real heat in her scenes with Redford. More importantly, Pollack orchestrates drama, romance, and suspense beautifully, crafting a picture that’s as much a character piece as it is an exploration of the uncertainty that permeated American life in the mid-’70s.
“Throw Momma From the Train” (1987). Danny DeVito’s first and best directorial effort offered a wonderfully dark alternative to the Day-Glo pap of big-budget ’80s comedy, using the plot hook of Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train” for a character-driven freakout. DeVito plays a damaged adult plagued by his overbearing ogre of a mother (Anne Ramsey), and Billy Crystal plays the writing instructor inadvertently sucked into DeVito’s twisted world. DeVito’s character is an exuberant man-child forever thwarted in his attempts to leave the nest, and Crystal’s character is a cynical scribe whose career is in neutral. The odd-couple dynamic feels strangely organic, with the leading players operating in graceful comic unison; DeVito adopts some of Crystal’s avuncular warmth while Crystal appropriates a touch of DeVito’s creepy vitriol. Future director Barry Sonnenfeld, in one of his finest hours as a cinematographer, invests the slapstick bits with tonalities approaching real menace, and he clouds key scenes in shadows straight out of ’40s noir. Similarly, screenwriter Stu Silver, a vet of Crystal’s old sitcom “Soap,” surrounds his weird protagonists with even weirder supporting characters. It all goes a little soft in the end, but most of the film is wickedly funny.
Ticotin, Rachel. Actor, b. 1958. A beautiful woman who exudes such strength and confidence that she seems capable of snapping most leading men in half, Ticotin has largely been typecast as tough characters. She's the woman who gets into a brawl with Sharon Stone in 1990's "Total Recall," and she's one of the unlucky prison guards in "Con Air" (1997). First appearing in ill-fitting ingénue roles, such as Paul Newman's young love interest in "Fort Apache the Bronx" (1981), Ticotin has moonlighted in television from the beginning of her career; she recently played a judge with a dissipating marriage on the short-lived 2003 series "Skin," and she appeared in a 2005 episode of the hit fantasy series "Lost." Among her many other TV credits is the celebrated 2002 miniseries "American Family," about the lives of an expansive Mexican-American clan.
"Time After Time" (1979). The auspicious launch of Nicholas Meyer's directing career, this imaginative romp begins in Victorian London, when H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) discovers that one of his society friends (David Warner) is the killer known as Jack the Ripper. Little problem—Jack just took flight in H.G.'s time machine, the very one described in H.G.'s book. So our intrepid hero ventures through time, and finds himself chasing Jack through '70s San Francisco, where rock music, modern sexual mores, and cars assault his senses. McDowell revels in a rare sympathetic role, and Warner contributes his signature elegant villainy, but the real joy of the piece is the exuberant fish-out-of-water material, presented in high "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" style. Meyer later mined this same vein for the script of "Star Trek IV," the 1986 series entry that presents the Enterprise crew as fish out of water in, you guessed it, San Francisco. Funny, smart, quite creepy at times, and filled with endearingly retro visual effects, "Time After Time" also features one of Mary Steenburgen's first appearances, as the modern girl who captures H.G.'s timeswept heart.
"To Live and Die in L.A." (1985). Several years after he'd been written off by critics and audiences, William Friedkin unleashed this perverse, frightening thriller that plays like a West Coast companion piece to his New York-set "The French Connection" (1971). Dealing with Feds and counterfeiters instead of cops and drug runners, Friedkin recaptures much of the previous picture's excitement. He even complements the famous "French Connection" car chase with a terrifying sequence involving vehicles blasting the wrong way through oncoming traffic on an L.A. freeway. While ostensibly a mano-a-mano story involving reckless Fed Richard Chance (William L. Petersen) and artistically minded counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), the movie gets weirder as it progresses, employing visual trickery, disquieting sexuality, and shocking plot twists. The metallic, eerie score by '80s group Wang Chung sets the mood perfectly. Much more than a cop movie, "To Live and Die in L.A." is soaked in Friedkin's bleak worldview.
“Trash: The Graphic Genius of Xploitation Movie Posters.” Though the world is hardly suffering a shortage of coffee-table books filled with one-sheets, “Trash” is anything but disposable for those with a soft spot for the grindhouse era. Slim and inexpensive, the book is sleekly and unobtrusively designed, providing splashy transitional layouts and then letting the pictures do the talking. See softcore freeze frames on the garish ad for “Teen-Age Jailbait” (“She’s a one-way ticket…to hell”)! See worms slithering out of a skull to promote “Squirm” (“This was the night of the crawling terror”)! See Richard Roundtree swing a big stick, literally, as he hypes “Shaft in Africa” (“The brother man in the motherland”)! Elegant posters share spreads with raunchier one-sheets, capturing the provocative and flamboyant salesmanship that made anticipating many of these movies more fun than actually watching them. Slight but delectable, Jacques Boyreau’s 2002 gem is naughty and nice all at once.
"The Traveling Executioner" (1970). Stacy Keach headlined a number of peculiar pictures during his regrettably brief run as a leading man in major features, and this pitch-black comedy-drama could be the oddest of them. As the title implies, Keach plays the owner of an electric chair who travels from prison to prison in the American South circa 1918, frying whomever needs frying. His character, Jonas Candide, is a poet or a schemer or both, soothing his "clients" with comforting tales about how death will transport them to the "fields of ambrosia," and running whatever scams occur to him when he decides he wants something. Jonas gets thrown off his game when he's recruited to execute a beautiful woman (Marianna Hill), so he uses his considerable wiles to delay her demise. Keach's long monologues, particularly those delivered to convicts seated in his trusty chair, are spellbinding, and the whole enterprise is wonderfully inappropriate, so even though the movie suffers narrative and tonal drift in its midsection, weirdness carries the day.
“Tribes” (1970). Back in the day when a strong telefilm could morph into an international theatrical release, “Tribes” made exactly that leap by capturing the culture clash between Greatest Generation grown-ups who believed in the Vietnam war and the counterculture youths poised to ship out to Saigon. TV stalwart Darren McGavin is effectively cast as the archetypal hard-driving drill instructor, and fleeting Me Decade star Jan-Michael Vincent gives a soulful performance as the hippie McGavin is expected to transform into a soldier. From the warbling folk-rock theme song to the gently trippy flashbacks Vincent experiences while doing yoga positions in his bunk, “Tribes” is permeated with unmistakable 1970s textures, but seen through modern eyes the effect is not retro-kitsch. Instead, the sheer 70s-ness of the movie underscores themes about a historical moment when traditional values were being supplanted by a more sophisticated, and unfortunately more cynical, idea of what it meant to be an American. These heavy ideas emerge organically in the gently crafted interaction of the two main characters, and while the movie’s sympathies obviously lie with the anguished peacenik, the filmmakers support their moral convictions by refusing to portray the drill sergeant as an automaton.
Trumbo, Dalton. Maverick, 1905-1976. Raising himself from humble beginnings with his ferocious work ethic and his dazzling wit, Trumbo was Hollywood's highest-paid writer in the World War II era, writing or cowriting the classics "Kitty Foyle" (1940) and "A Guy Named Joe" (1943). By that point, he had also written his immortal antiwar novel "Johnny Got His Gun." Then the anticommunist blacklist came, and Trumbo found himself unemployable because of his political integrity. He quickly undermined the witch hunt by penning "Roman Holiday" (1953) and other hits under pseudonyms, eventually scoring an Oscar for the family picture "The Brave One" in 1956. The resulting controversy helped shake the blacklist, and Trumbo walked back into the light in 1960, when his name appeared onscreen in "Spartacus" and "Exodus." A few more key credits followed, including the intense political drama "The Fixer" (1968) and Trumbo's experimental directorial effort "Johnny Got His Gun" (1970), the long-gestating adaptation of his book. By the time Trumbo's big-screen career ended with his work on 1973's "Papillon," his status as one of screenwriting's true legends was secure. (The 2007 documentary "Trumbo," combining vivid biographical material with vignettes of big-name actors reading Trumbo's famously loquacious letters, is highly recommended, although viewers should be prepared to endure a pair of fleeting appearances by the author of this guide.)
Tucci, Stanley. Actor/filmmaker, b. 1960. After ten years of playing swarthy ethnic types in films and television, including more than his share of mobsters, Tucci redefined himself in 1996 by cowriting and codirecting "Big Night," a soft-spoken comedy about two Italian brothers at odds about how to put their restaurant on the map. Tucci gave himself a strong role as suave maitre'd Secundo, generously giving the showier part of chef Primo to the priceless Tony Shalhoub. Richer and more varied parts came Tucci's way thereafter, including a chance to play a notorious power-monger in the 1998 telefilm "Winchell." He also continued to direct, bringing a unique New York story to the screen with "Joe Gould's Secret" (2000); that film displayed the actor's range by featuring him as a cerebral Southerner. Oddly, Tucci has evolved from typecasting as Italian criminals to typecasting as officious antagonists. In the sci-fi romp "The Core" (2003) and Steven Spielberg's airport-set dramedy "The Terminal" (2004), Tucci is memorably fastidious and irritating. Now firmly established as a reliable talent with great range, Tucci balances his acting and directing with voice work, adding his crisp tones to commercials and such cartoon features as 2005's "Robots." His recurring role as a flamboyant broadcaster in the "Hunger Games" movies was memorable enough to inspire a comedic homage by Stephen Colbert during the insanity of the 2016 election cycle, and Tucci still regularly astounds with unexpected performances; note his riotous turn as vulgar studio executive Jack Warner in the scandalous Hollywood story "Feud: Bette and Joan" (2017).
“The TV Set” (2007). “Originality scares me a little,” says soulless TV exec Lenny (Sigourney Weaver) to exasperated series creator Mike (David Duchovny). The dynamic between Lenny and Mike epitomizes everything that’s sly and fun about Jake Kasdan’s understated satire, because rarely has the art-versus-commerce battle underlying all of Hollywood been presented so smoothly and fairly. Mike’s heart is in the right place, but he’s absurd because he’s trying to get a suicide-themed personal project into prime time. Concurrently, Lenny is right, after a fashion, because she understands why her network’s biggest recent success is a reality-TV nightmare called “Slut Wars.” Kasdan obviously identifies more closely with the long-suffering artist, but his investigation of the show-business slaughterhouse makes it clear that integrity is only one of the things that gets sacrificed on the altar of success. Funny, tight, and never so whimsical that it drifts into the sillier extremes of, say, Christopher Guest’s show-biz parodies, “The TV Set” benefits from great performances across the board, especially by the dream duo of Duchovny and Weaver, both of whom are so dry that their work should be used in acting classes.
"25th Hour" (2002). Spike Lee sets aside the politics for this gripping character drama about a small-time dealer (Edward Norton) struggling through his last day of freedom before a seven-year jail term. Screenwriter David Benioff, working from his novel, uses flashbacks and narration to add layer upon layer to the story, which goes from dark to darker as the dealer settles old scores and faces the harsh reality of his circumstances. Norton gives one of his nerviest performances—his hateful monologue at the center of the film is a show-stopper combining Benioff's ballsy wordplay with Lee's in-your-face style—and it's a testament to his and the film's humanistic quality that we care what happens to Norton's character despite his reckless choices. Rosario Dawson does some of her strongest work as a girlfriend who may or may not have betrayed her man, while Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper convey a spectrum of uncomfortable feelings as the dealer's best friends. Barreling along on bile, angst, and hubris, the movie never feels long despite its lengthy running time, because each sequence is more imaginative and daring than the last.
"Twilight's Last Gleaming" (1977). It's not hard to determine why this 146-minute bummer didn't connect with a wider audience, but for those who like a few ideas woven into their thrillers, this one's worth investigating. Burt Lancaster plays an embittered general who commandeers a nuclear-missile silo in order to force the release of papers revealing nefarious American activities in Southeast Asia. The movie methodically tracks every step of his operation, with the tension rising as Lancaster's team unravels and as the military realizes it can't afford to comply with his demands. Though the talky script and director Robert Aldrich's frequent use of split screens date the piece, the premise remains exciting throughout, and the movie's filled with entertaining performers, among them Charles Durning, Richard Widmark, Paul Winfield, Burt Young, and even Blacula himself, William Marshall.
"The Unbelievable Truth" (1989). Hal Hartley's mannered, nouvelle vague-inspired style has worn thin in recent years, but it was completely winning in his first feature, depicting the unlikely romance between an enigmatic ex-con (Robert John Burke) and a spirited teenager (Adrienne Shelly). Applying a powerful directorial stamp on every frame of the movie, Hartley has his polished actors deliver lines almost exclusively in monotones, and he shoots the picture in stationary images given rhythm and motion by nimble editing. He also creates transitions and punctuation through amusing title cards, and spices key moments with offbeat sound effects. Particularly in inspired stretches featuring absurd situations carried to screwball extremes, Hartley's method produces fresh and fun results. The regimented artiness is a turn-off for many viewers, but a delight for those who click with Hartley's skewed perspective.
“United 93” (2006). Paul Greengrass’ account of the one hijacked 9/11 flight that didn’t reach its target is so excruciatingly credible that it seems like verisimilitude until you remember that the filmmakers made up a great deal of what they put onscreen. Smartly casting unfamiliar faces, including many of the real-life ground personnel who tracked 93’s fateful arc, Greengrass generates a docudrama vibe that’s brisk and polished, but never sensationalized; he obviously realized that amping up this chilling historical moment would have been unnecessary and distasteful. Though in large part a tribute to passengers and crew members who summoned unimaginable bravery, the film also humanizes the hijackers without ever diminishing the horror of their actions. Methodical and taut, the picture injects clear-headed perspective into the mix of 9/11 discourse while also offering an insightful exploration of group dynamics. Coursing through the whole thing, of course, are both the sickening certainty of what’s coming and the disturbing indications of how tragedy could have been averted.
"The Upside of Anger" (2005). Straddling vitriol and sentiment to mostly winning effect, writer-director Mike Binder's dramedy about the repercussions of a patriarch's departure gives Joan Allen and Kevin Costner two of their richest characters. When Allen's husband takes off, presumably with a bimbo girlfriend, she goes into a tailspin that includes drunken rages, an on-and-off flirtation with Costner, and wildly inappropriate reactions to the predicaments in which her daughters find themselves. Allen gets to add sensuality to the stridency that sometimes dominates her roles, and Costner plays an ex-athlete who comes across very much like a crustier version of Crash Davis, his poetic ballplayer in "Bull Durham" (1988). Swirling around them are strong supporting players Erika Christensen, Keri Russell, Alicia Witt, and Evan Rachel Wood (all as Allen's daughters), plus Binder himself, self-deprecatingly cast as Costner's lecherous sidekick. Not everything works, but the acting is delightful throughout.
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