Friday, July 02, 2010

The Movie List: 35-31

35. “Why does everything take so long?”

Four Friends (1981)

I haven’t seen this one in quite a while, and it’s not available on Netflix, so I’m going by distant memory. I realize this is awfully high for distant memory. But what can I say, I trust myself. Four Friends was directed by Arthur Penn, of Bonnie and Clyde fame, and was written by Steven Tesich, who also wrote the terrific Breaking Away. (Breaking Away is another movie I saw a long time ago, but could have confidently put on this list nevertheless. Why I put this movie on here and not that one is one of those mysteries of which the list is really made.) Four Friends at least begins true to its title, with three young men in love with the same woman, Georgia (Jodi Thelen), but it soon focuses primarily on Danilo (Craig Wasson), who has a contentious relationship with his hard-working immigrant father. I’ll excerpt Vincent Canby’s original review in the New York Times for the rest, because on December 11, 1981, he surely had a fresher view of the movie than I have now:
Four Friends is the best film yet made about the 60's . . . It's a film that embraces the looks, sounds, speech and public events of the 60's, but not in the way of a documentary. It has the quality of legend, a fable remembered. . . . Danilo is the Yugoslavian-born son of immigrant parents, who arrives in this country in 1948 at the age of 12 and spends the next decade and a half sorting out the reality of America from his dream of it . . . Mr. Tesich sometimes lets his prose become more purple than is easily accepted on the screen -- “When stars collide, it's out of loneliness” -- but this is the film's method. Four Friends is about ordinary people, but not ordinary people who speak a predictable, commonplace vernacular. They take leaps into the unknown and occasionally come up spouting what sounds like rubbish, which is part of the film's extraordinary style and what separates it from a kind of fiction that aspires to do nothing more than reproduce actuality.
34. “I got it, I’m gone.”

Do the Right Thing (1989)

This is a movie that is great to look at and great to argue about, and it’s hard to want a lot more than that. The saturated colors, the true capture of a steamy day in Brooklyn, and the sometimes cartoonish characterizations make the movie’s march toward real violence something special. When I was younger, I thought that Mookie’s actions at the end of the movie were shocking and unforgivable. Now that I’m older, I still think it’s shocking, but obviously complicated. Spike Lee has said, more than once: “White people still ask me why Mookie threw the can through the window. Twenty years later, they're still asking me that. No black person ever, in 20 years, no person of color has ever asked me why.” Like other questions of this nature, I think the divide in reaction he describes goes a good way toward defining the problem. The can through the window is the movie’s most blatant provocation, though there are others -- like the scene in which Mookie and Pino talk about bigotry and then a series of actors address the camera spewing their own favored stereotypes. The rest of the movie, always concerned with race, is a joy to watch for the performances, from Samuel L. Jackson, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and native Brooklynites Rosie Perez and John Turturro.

33. “You guys gotta look menacing!”

American Movie (1999)

Oh, how I love American Movie, a documentary about 30-year-old Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt, who’s desperately trying to finish a low-low-budget horror flick called Coven (which he insists on pronouncing COE-ven). He’s accompanied on the journey by his musician friend Mike Schank. As I wrote in a previous post: “One of the great things about the movie is that you genuinely like Mark and Mike even when you're laughing at them. And yes, you laugh at them. A lot.” Borchardt’s motor-mouth antics, and his complicated mixture of ambition and self-loathing, made the film an instant hit, and made him a regular guest on Late Show with David Letterman. He’s become something of a cult star since, appearing in several horror movies (Zombie Island and The Hagstone Demon, among others). But it’s likely he’ll always be best known for American Movie, where director Chris Smith lovingly captures his Midwestern personality and his Plutonian, if un-filmable visions.

32. “Anyone can cook . . . but only the fearless can be great.”

Ratatouille (2007)

I think this is Pixar’s crowning achievement so far, for a few reasons. First, they managed to make a rat sympathetic. I see rats in New York all the time, and let me tell you, that’s no mean trick. Second, it’s as clever as their other stories, positing a restaurant's perceived greatest villain as its possible savior. Third, it’s gorgeous, with the studio’s animation put to use on some stunning scenes, including Remy’s journey through underground sewers, ending on a panoramic rooftop view of Paris. But lastly, and most importantly, while all of Pixar’s movies have that often-mentioned mixture of moments for children and adults, the last act of Ratatouille, and what it says about both the urge to create and the urge to critique, is particularly sharp. The critic (brilliantly voiced by Peter O’Toole) is reminded of his childhood in a way that it would be impossible for a child to appreciate. (My friend Sarah extrapolated on this thought here.)

31. “I’m glad what I done!”

On the Waterfront (1954)

This should probably be higher. Brando is in other films on my list, but this is the movie on the list most fueled by his presence. It’s not that this is his most searing performance. That’s probably still Streetcar, in my opinion, but this is a better movie. Brando is Terry Malloy, a not-too-bright dock worker whose brother, Charley, is the lawyer for the local mobbed-up union boss. Brando’s performance is an all-time great, and the supporting cast lives up to it: Lee J. Cobb as the corrupt boss, Rod Steiger as Charley, Karl Malden as the waterfront priest, and Eva Marie Saint as Edie, Terry’s love interest. The most famous scene is one of the most famous scenes, when Charley threatens Terry and then Terry builds up to “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.” But there are plentiful other gems, most notably the scene where Terry strolls with Edie, absentmindedly playing with her glove and issuing great, casual Brando-isms (“I don’t like the country, the crickets make me nervous.”).

Novelist Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplay, and according to Wikipedia: “Schulberg later published a novel just called Waterfront that was much closer to his original screenplay than the version that was released on-screen. Among several differences is that, in both the screenplay and the novel, Terry Malloy is brutally murdered.”



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