American Classics: Jaws

A magnificent movie, a great American classic, a masterpiece — 10/10. Happy 4th of July!

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L.A. Stories

Two quintessentially Los Angeles-themed movies arrived on the scene within a year of each-other in the early nineties.  Each is one of my all-time favorites.

Tim Robbins and Greta Scacchi in The Player

Tim Robbins and Greta Scacchi in The Player

The Player (1992, Tim Robbins) has got to be the ultimate film fan’s film, the consummate inside-Hollywood movie about making movies.  Within a sophisticated parody of the business lies a true and great modern noir crime story.  The comic and serious elements combine with Robert Altman’s perfectly matched directorial style, excellent starring performances, and a juggernaut of celebrity cameos to yield one of the most fabulously entertaining and memorable movies of all time.

Until someone can demonstrate to me otherwise, this is the best movie that either Altman or Robbins, or likely anyone else involved, has ever done.  The Player is essential viewing on anyone’s list.  10/10

* * *

L.A. Story - posterWith The Player I pair another L.A. story, L.A. Story (obvious, right?).  It’s a terrific romantic comedy which mocks the southern California lifestyle while embracing it.  L.A. Story is infectiously warm, and captures the magical spirit of Los Angeles in a purely positive way not seen elsewhere.  Roger Ebert gave his highest rating:

These stories of love provide the fragile narrative thread on which Martin (who wrote) and Mick Jackson (who directed) weave their spell. There are scenes that in other hands might have seemed obvious (for example, the daily routine of shooting at other drivers while racing down the freeway), but somehow there is a fanciful edge in the way they do it, a way they define all of their material with a certain whimsical tone.

The film is astonishing in the amount of material it contains. Martin has said he worked on the screenplay, on and off, for seven years, and you can sense that as the film unfolds. It isn’t thin or superficial; there is an abundance of observation and invention here, and perhaps because the filmmakers know they have so much good material, there’s never the feeling that anything is being punched up, or made to carry more than its share. I was reminded of the films of Jacques Tati, in which, calmly, serenely, an endless series of comic invention unfolds.

9/10.  Both of these movies are shown occasionally on TV, but are also available for rental.  Do the right thing and watch each one whole, separately or together: L.A. Story and The Player would make a Los Angeles-themed double feature you can’t beat.

Cinematic Greats: La Femme Nikita

Highly recommended, a masterpiece not only of French cinema but of all cinema.  Make sure you are watching the original 1990 version (also known as simply Nikita) directed by Luc Besson, starring Anne Parillaud, in French with English subtitles.  Do not confuse with the Bridget Fonda remake or the various TV interpretations.  Unfortunately, it is not available for rental — but try to get your hands on a copy.  La Femme Nikita is a great introduction to French film for those who are new to it.  10/10

la_femme_nikita Poster

La Femme Nikita - still

Monday Mania: American Psycho

American Psycho Poster

My first exposure to Christian Bale was in the visionary masterpiece American Psycho (2000).  To give you a flavor for this film, I point to the Times review by Stephen Holden:

From the opening credits, in which drops of blood are confused with red berry sauce drizzled on an exquisitely arranged plate of nouvelle cuisine, the movie establishes its insidious balance of humor and aestheticized gore. That sly confusion between the beautiful and the gruesome extends to the language of the screenplay….

As Patrick embarks on his series of grisly murders, each of which only whets his appetite for further carnage, the movie portrays his acts of violence as increasingly frustrated attempts to be noticed. But either Patrick’s armor of designer labels and hard-bodied readiness is impenetrable or else no one wants to look below his surface to the murderous inner child. Ultimately, his escalating blood lust gives new meaning to the term ”narcissistic rage.”

This movie includes a case in point of the rarely-used cinematic device of what not to show: after having sex with two call girls in his home, he opens a drawer filled with implements — nasty little tools — and tells them, “We’re not through yet.”  Sheer wickedness.  The scene then cuts to the women hurriedly leaving his apartment, damaged in some unspecific way and very upset.  What exactly did he do with those implements?  That’s the brilliance of the scene: use your imagination.

American Psycho strongly divided both critics and audiences, so a warning: you might really hate it.  If that’s the case you may not have much use for my blog, because as I’ve mentioned before, I like movies that stand up and out.  Blandness is not welcome here.

I think even those who don’t like this movie can agree that Christian Bale’s tour de force is something to behold.  American Psycho is a joyfully murderous romp, a perfectly twisted complement to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.  10/10

Cinematic Greats: After Hours

Everybody knows about Goodfellas and Raging Bull.  But there is a relatively little-known Scorcese picture that is every bit equal to his famous masterpieces: After Hours.  Scorcese made this film in 1985 so that he could deliver a relatively cheap and easy production (IMDb gives an estimated budget of $4.5 million) in the wake of his first failed attempt at The Last Temptation of Christ.

Boy did he deliver.  This is a fabulously entertaining, darkly comic story about a word processor’s (Griffin Dunne) night-time odyssey through the streets of SoHo in Manhattan.  Roger Ebert at the time gave this film his highest rating, 4 out of 4 stars:

“After Hours” is a brilliant film, one of the year’s best. It is also a most curious film. It comes after Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” a film I thought was fascinating but unsuccessful, and continues Scorsese’s attempt to combine comedy and satire with unrelenting pressure and a sense of all-pervading paranoia. This time he succeeds. The result is a film that is so original, so particular, that we are uncertain from moment to moment exactly how to respond to it. The style of the film creates, in us, the same feeling that the events in the film create in the hero.

Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette in After Hours

Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette in After Hours

I concur, but will add that although After Hours is indeed starkly original, it is not at all so quirky as to be difficult to follow.  Quite the opposite: the story here is laid out in consummate, directly linear fashion.  The result is a movie that is engrossing from first frame to last, without a single dull moment.  An extra bonus will be had for Scorsese fans out there, as After Hours is full of cinematic flair — those great camera movements in particular — which are characteristically Marty.

Griffin Dunne’s central character is surrounded by a movie-lover’s delight of oddball supporting characters played by Rosanna Arquette, Teri Garr, Linda Fiorentino, Cheech & Chong, Catherine O’Hara, Bronson Pinchot and others, and by Scorsese himself in a cameo role. As I said, fabulously entertaining — a masterpiece.  10/10

And a warning: avoid the trailer, which is readily available.  It steals a number of surprises from the movie, and yet does not flatter it.

Cinematic Greats: After Dark, My Sweet

After Dark PosterAfter Dark, My Sweet (1990) is the ultimate neo-noir film, and one of my all-time favorite movies.  I can’t do any better than the late Roger Ebert in extolling its virtues; from his review:

The closing 20 minutes of this movie contain masterful storytelling, with important decisions arriving silently, by implication. The last 60 seconds are brilliantly complex, as Collie steps a few feet away into the desert to think things through, and does, and improvises a chain of events that is inevitable, heroic, sad and flawless.

I also concur with the following tribute (less the dig at Rachel Ward) offered by Entertainment Weekly’s Melissa Pierson:

After Dark, My Sweet looks simultaneously crisp and drenched in the yellow light of a strange dream, an effect that becomes especially haunting on video.

In this alluring tour through unsettled emotional territory, Jason Patric (The Lost Boys) gives an exceptionally sharp performance as an ex-boxer with one screw loose and another turned down tight. He’s drawn into a kidnapping scheme concocted by a former cop (Bruce Dern) and a sultry widow (Rachel Ward, for whom acting apparently means gesticulating). Together, they visit a place where desire and pain are indistinguishable, and everything goes twistingly awry.

I love the look and feel of this movie, and connect its rural-suburban desert setting to my personal history.  I relate to the idea of tramping under the blazing sun through its far-flung landscape.

Ebert ends his review by saying:

I have seen “After Dark, My Sweet” four times, and it only deepens with the retelling.

This movie is brilliant, perfect, a little-known gem.  10/10