Thursday, June 10, 2010

10 Unlikely Favorites

In the spirit of Ebert's Overlooked DVD column, here are ten movies I love that you might not have seen or heard of, or that simply deserve a second viewing.  They're not in any kind of order.

1) The Limey (1999), Steven Soderbergh

Ocean's 11 director Soderbergh infused this revenge genre piece with style and poignancy.  By casting two aging sixties icons--Terrence Stamp and Peter Fonda--and lacing the soundtrack with the songs of their times, he connects their wistfulness for their own past to something broader in American consciousness.  The Who's The Seeker plays like a theme song to the film, suggesting something more existential about Stamp's quest to avenge his daughter's death, and sounding pretty cool when Soderbergh has Stamp walk in slow motion to its cadences Reservoir Dogs-style.

2) Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), Frank Oz

Scoundrels spins two con-men's bet into a farce of dueling, manic wits.  Steve Martin puts on perhaps his best uptight-unhinged performance (it's up there with Planes, Trains and Automobiles), and Michael Caine provides the unctuous-outrageous counterpoint.  It wrings many laughs from these men's absurd commitment to their cons, which includes a great moment where Martin--pretending to be a crippled navy veteran--drags himself across a beach in a staged attempted suicide.  Dirty and rotten, indeed.

3) Collateral (2004), Michael Mann

Boistered by a dark, off-type bad guy performance by Tom Cruise, Mann's Collateral may be the best of the semi-Hitchcockian thrillers of the last decade.  Jamie Foxx, pre-Ray, shines as the Jimmy Stewart everyman who finds himself trapped by a dark and morally twisting conundrum:  drive a hit man from hit to hit in your cab for good money, or you'll be shot.  Mann applies the gritty, on-the-street feel he developed in his epic crime melodrama Heat and yields a neo-noirish, ultimately small film about an average man who has to rise to the occasion of unusually critical circumstances.

4) Porco Rosso (1992), Hayao Miyazaki

This seems to be the Miyazaki no one has seen or heard of, but it ranks near the top of his filmography above less satisfying pieces like Castle in the Sky and Howl's Moving Castle.  It follows a lost generation type World War I flying ace who has turned to bounty hunting to cash in on his unrivaled aeronautic prowess.  Michael Keaton provides a great world-weary, rugged man spin to the character in the English dub, who is an idealist who has more or less given up on a happy life and settled into success and isolation--the internal component of the curse he carries which made him into an anthropomorphized pig.  The movie lyrically combines quietly observed stillness and frenetic aerial excitement, and Porco has to come to terms with himself and the women he won't allow to love him.

5) Zodiac (2007), David Fincher

Rather than the aestheticized ritual murders of se7en or the aestheticized ritual brawls of Fight Club, Fincher here aestheticizes the police procedural.  Fact by fact from the real-life case of San Francisco's 1970's serial killer, he lays out the story of the murders and the men who tried to apprehend their perpetrator.  It's full of mood, eerie cinematography and strong performances from Downey Jr., Gyllenhal and the rest of the cast.  It shows a quest for justice that has none of the satisfaction of a typical revenge thriller (note the pointed references to Dirty Harry) and that proves a long self-destructive process for those who stick with it.  For a film about a serial killer, there is hardly any gore although the two or three murder scenes do manage to jangle the nerves.

6) Intolerable Cruelty (2003), Joel Coen

What if a divorce attorney pursued a scheming man-eater of a divorcee?  This premise drives the Coens' imperfect but often hilarious genre riff on old school screwball comedies.  Granted, Clooney and Zeta-Jones do not zip in their scenes together, but strong supporting performances from Cedric the Entertainer, Billy Bob Thornton and Geoffrey Rush crackle with comic absurdity.  Also, Clooney's banter with his right hand man provides some quotable fast-talking comic bits.  It's uneven, but when the effeminate Eurotrash Heinz, the baron, Kraus-von-Espy comes on stage--well, it's worth the price of admission.

7) The Color of Money (1986), Martin Scorsese

Possibly the best movie about pool hustling you could hope for.  I remember being disappointed with Rounders, the Ed Norton/Matt Damon movie about card sharks, and I think Color supersedes its successor by playing to its actors strengths and having a whiz-bang visual stylist like Marty behind the camera.  Paul Newman, reprising his role from The Hustler (1961), plays an old pro tired of the sport and rich from selling booze.  He takes young hotshot Tom Cruise under his wing; the movie wisely takes the annoying edge off Cruise's trademark intensity by making it a liability needing to be trained rather than simply unleashed.  He is a stallion that needs to be broken, Newman his grizzled ranch-hand.  The performances are believable, un-pretentious; the drama stays meaningful by ultimately having to do with Newman's choices at the end of his career rather than a simple help-the-hotshot-to-win father-son narrative.

8) The Life Aquatic (with Steve Zissou) (2004), Wes Anderson

Anderson's films combine storybook artificiality with melancholy to affect wistfulness for lost childhoods and unrealized dreams.  If you dig this shtick you'll tend to like his work, otherwise you probably "don't get it."  Aquatic's narrative may be the most self-consciously artificial of Anderson's creations, but it has it both ways by being about a man whose real life and on screen life have bled together so that he lives vicariously through his celebrity self-image.  Bill Murray has enough big-hearted melancholy--as bastardly as it may make him in this film--to carry the story; Owen Wilson comes in as the (maybe) son-figure who becomes instrumental in Zissou's grasp of his inner child and eventual coming-to-terms with his "real" self.  All this is set against the backdrop of a cartoonish oceanic expedition with twee fluorishes like acoustic David Bowie covers sung in Portuguese in character by Seu Jorge.  To me, the Sigur Ros scored climax still rings transcendent, though those without a taste for the films sad childishness probably won't find it emotionally resonant.

9) The Hunt for Red October (1989), John McTiernan

In some ways this is the perfect film.  A world on the brink of nuclear disaster.  A rogue Russian captain commanding a first-strike capable silent submarine.  A gutsy and snarky CIA analyst played by Alec Baldwin.  It's eminently watchable genre material, a political-military thriller with Sean Connery's brogue standing in for the otherwise Russian-twinged English among his crew.  It's corny-good, Saturday afternoon fare, one of the movies I watched in awe as a child that still entertains today.  I'm always up for the threat of nuclear holocaust (in movies) and am ready for an Ocotober/Strangelove double-feature.

10) In Bruges (2008), Martin McDonagh

Two Irish hit men sight see in Bruges, "the most well-preserved medieval city in Europe."  This black comic thriller contrasts the centuries old serenity of the setting with the violent lifestyles of its visitors.  Brendan Gleeson plays an older gunman responsible for Colin Farrell's newbie who has been sent away from London after botching his first assignment.  Gleeson enjoys the sights with serenity of having accepted his life, while Farrell is all nervous guilt and manic energy and can't stand the boredom of the town.  Ralph Fiennes comes in, third act, as boss and bad guy, announcing the climax over the fourth wall, "This is the shootout."  He plays his gangster alpha male with unhinged intensity that will have you laughing in disbelief.  The film is ironic, clever, violent and very, very profane.  It's an acquired taste, but, like good whiskey, it's oh-so-good going down once you've dealt with the unpleasant sensation you get at first.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Nostalgia / Vertigo

I have just spent my late morning wandering the UNF campus. My alma mater, my academic crucible, my spiritual community. I have no car to call my own on this trip and so my mom dropped me off at the library, ostensibly to do work while she went to the west-side. Granted, I stepped in the library first, but the pull of memory dragged me out. I walked, nay, sauntered across campus, each nook and space charged with some moment from a time when I had yet to look the hard-nosed economy of the working world eye to eye. A time when I coasted on my cerebral coattails, reluctantly meeting deadlines and soaking up all the communal affirmation I could wring from our little para-church InterVarsity group. Not to say that I didn't have legitimate spiritual interest in the group or the various small group bible studies I co-led, but fundamentally, in my heart of hearts, my wounded inner child needed them more than they needed me.

I walked slowly, with laptop and manpurse slung over shoulders with straps crossing sternum in a black x, from the library to my freshman dormitory, the path I would have walked to class nearly 8 years ago. I walked across the campus green, past where our IV large groups used to be--the space is used for classrooms now--remembering countless weeks of inductive bible study and acoustic guitar worship. Past the renovated cafeteria, lakes, the oldest and smallest of all the dorm buildings. The sun bright and weather a balmy 83, the smell of pine and palmetto Florida wetlands all around, geese with matured young all waddling in disorderly columns. I walk past the second oldest dorms and past the fountain my friend Karissa complained about when we were 18 because didn't Florida have enough water shortage without this thing. Across the street and beside another stagnant retention pond to my first home away from home, a three story concrete and brick triangle with a covered and air-conditioned inner courtyard where they used to play Epic Duels and the second floor walkway where Andrew Roberts slept by stacks of historiography. I slipped in, illegally maybe, walked around, went up to third floor where I lived along with Matt Hartley and David Trautman. 8 years. The Navigators are now using the building for a summer internship program. I looked in the common rooms where we had bible studies, where I met close friends and was filled with young folly.

I left, walked back to campus, past the senior, apartment style dorms where Matt and Taylor used to watch the Return of the King trailer before they went to sleep. Where I made a teary-eyed phone call to my IV staffworker in the immediate wake of a heartbreak. The smells, the Florida smells and little lizards that scurry which I never took notice of until I lived in the north where the reptiles fear to tread. Through the Arts building that was new when I started, passe now. I head back across the green towards the history department, my haunt my last semester at the school. I don't run into any of my old professors except the English prof who went to Spain with Andrea & I in 2005; her husband died the summer after and I ask her how she is doing, but this is a surface reconnect and I don't expect her to open up to me. She is fine. We exchange pleasantries and I stumble with explaining the ACNA to her, an (former?) Episcopalian who doesn't seem to understand what it means that my seminary is Anglican but not Episcopal.

I walk past the classroom in building 10 that I took a disproportionate amount of classes in. It's now office space.

I take a walkway to the Philosophy department but Julie Ingersoll isn't in. Then past the Honors department where they still have that corner room with beanbags and computers that I never spent any time in as an honors student. Too bad I didn't choose history as a freshman instead of as a sophomore. Then I step outside, having eaten the roastbeef-swiss-horseradish sandwich I made before I left this morning, and the vertigo sets in.

Four towering new buildings greet me, Wackadoo's* and the parking lots gone. The two-tiered Student Union, the Health School extension and the Education building line a new horizon and elicit anonymously-directed interjections of incredulity from me. I wandered the union, mostly, taking in its large interior spaces and dramatic, metal-and-glass angles. In the intercultural gallery a tall black man with an African accent asks me what I am looking for and I think of the short Swiss doctoral student who was my boss when I worked at FSU. I tell him I'm wandering, and he says okay, but I felt like he wasn't all happy that I was just walking in and out of places. I spend several minutes perusing new hallways like they were some art gallery, smelling of fresh synthetics and occasionally marked with flat screen televisions in the style typical to sports bars and gaudy restaurant chains. The new construction spins my head, but at least I don't find out the dead woman I'm obsessed with double-crossed me.

I cross the street to the fitness center, and peer in to see the interior I remember. Finally, something apparently unchanged.

Next to the fitness center stands the arena, also relatively unchanged, the last place I was on campus for official undergraduate business (graduation, August 2006). Reaching it was cathartic. Like I had made a pilgrimage, taking account of all the years I walked those grounds, looking at my college self through my seminary lens wandering what I would have done differently then and what I should do differently now. I couldn't help but think about my fledgling desires to do church work near a campus, reaching out to students with the support of working adults and families in a congregation nearby. Bishop Alden Hathaway exhorted us on our quiet day early last semester to look at universities as mission field and to be the church where new Augustines and Augustinas might be discipled to proclaim the gospel to a brilliant yet decaying culture. His words ring in my head as I take in this campus with a different mind than I once had, detached enough from the pressure of school to think purely in gospel terms.

*Wackadoo's was the strangely named campus restaurant that served burgers & beer and a regular part of my undergraduate life.