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Hustle & Flow (2005)
living the dream
I almost walked out of this movie a couple of times but am glad that I stuck it out. This is a cut or two above the blaxploitation flicks of the 1970s and a more realistic portrayal of the black culture, I think, than "Shaft" (I'm white, by the way). I sympathized with D-Jay, the lead character, who wanted to quit pimping and live his dream. Most movie pimps are stereotyped, but D-Jay's character looked at prostitution (the world's oldest profession, we're told) as a means to an end. So, I was disappointed when D-Jay, rather than beat up the man in the electronics store for eyeing his woman suspiciously, lends her out in return for the microphone he wants. The movie heats up when a Memphis native-turned-rap star comes home for July 4 and chills out with his posse at a local club. Clutching a demo tape of his rap tunes, D-Jay gets a meet-and-greet session with the established star, and I dare not reveal more. A movie that easily could have failed succeeds because of the strength, and honesty, of its fine cast. And, the years have been good to Isaac Hayes, whose theme from the original "Shaft" was ground breaking in its day.
Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
what were you expecting ... hamlet?
Enough already, "Kranks" bashers. My wife and I talked about the movie after seeing the trailer before "Spider-Man 2," and we were not disappointed. It's not Oscar-winning material, but I'd rather watch a light-hearted movie like this (a matinée for $5.25) than any "Kill Bill" or "Lord of the Rings" extravaganza. Tim Allen, Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis have done MUCH better work, but who cares. If you want, or need, to laugh and feel good when you leave the theater, check out the "Kranks." I don't consider myself the most sophisticated movie-watcher, but neither my wife nor I, nor anyone watching with us, walked out of the theater.
Your Cheatin' Heart (1964)
Anyone who believes this movie is a true depiction of Hank Williams' life must know nothing about the man's life or walked into the wrong movie. At age 10, after seeing this movie twice at my small town's theater, I almost had a fight with my best friend and next-door neighbor about the account of Williams' death, which anyone who knows the true story will find ludicrous. Meaning no disrespect to the actress or the person on this board who considers her a great actress, but Susan Oliver's on-screen appeal escapes detection. And asking George Hamilton to portray one of the most charismatic performers of the 20th Century is simply laughable. Red Buttons gives it the old college try and Arthur O'Connell is OK as Fred Rose. In the right hands, a film version of Hank Williams' life story might be compelling entertainment. This isn't it.
Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)
Vincente Minnelli's film version bears little resemblance to Irwin Shaw's novel of the same name, not that there's anything wrong with that. This movie belongs on the second half of a double feature with "The Carpetbaggers" as a guilty pleasure I can't resist watching. It spoofs the difficulties American directors had in making quality movies overseas when European producers expressed no interest in quality, only profit. This is a lesser alternative to Fellini's "8 1/2" and Godard's "Contempt," which explored the same theme, and its trashiness is expressed perfectly with footage from "The Bad and the Beautiful," another Minnelli-Douglas collaboration. Favorite line, Edward G. Robinson to Douglas regarding George Hamilton: "He's crazier on the loose than you were locked up."
Nobody's Fool (1994)
It's next to impossible not to like Paul Newman on screen, so it's a tremendous active achievement when he plays an unsympathetic character. Sully, his greatest role since "Hud," depicts Newman at his worst and thus at his best. Tom Hanks was remarkable in "Forrest Gump," but Newman deserved the 1994 Best Actor Oscar for "Nobody's Fool." The movie's greatness lies in the relationships between Newman and two other characters. Jessica Tandy is closer to Newman than her own son, played by Josef Sommer (who it's revealed is a white-collar crook and thus a bigger scoundrel than Sully, whom he despises). Likewise, Newman connects easier with co-worker Rub than with his own son, who can't see beyond his father's betrayal during a wayward youth. The reconciliation between Sully and Rub on a back porch may be the greatest of Newman's career ("Peter's my son. You're my best friend," Sully says in terms that even the slow-thinking Rub can grasp instantly). Robert Benton, who also directed the heartwarming "Places in the Heart," gives us an equally personal, but more disciplined work. He assembles A-list performers (Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith are magnetic on screen), gives them marvelous dialogue ("You're a man among men," Griffith tells Newman twice in the movie but with different meanings) and melts our hearts. But acting honors go to Newman, whose complex Sully becomes if not loving, then at least a responsible, functioning, vital member of the human race. And, in the end, nobody's fool.
The Notebook (2004)
"that's my sweetheart in there"
My mother died two years of complications from Alzheimer's, so it's with reluctance that I watched this movie -- but am glad now that I did. This is a love story with Alzheimer's as a reference point, lovingly directed by Nick Cassavetes, whose mother, Gena Rowlands, plays the elder Allie (I think she can prepare her acceptance speech at next year's Academy Awards ceremony). The movie comes ever so close to drifting into parity but I was blown away when Allie and her mother, played by Joan Allen, visited the sawmill and she confessed her feelings for an old flame. I was reminded of an earlier scene that Allie's mother said Noah was nothing but "trash, trash, trash," but we realize later that it wasn't so much Allie, but herself, that she was trying to convince. So, unlike Daisy Buchanan in "The Great Gatsby," Allie Hamilton, a rich girl, marries Noah Calhoun, a poor boy, and the angels in heaven rejoice. Anyone who has lost a loved one to Alzheimer's or just remembers his first love should see this one -- but take along plenty of Kleenex; believe me, you'll need it.
Citizen Kane (1941)
What else can one say about a movie that everything has been said, and better? Although not my favorite movie, "Citizen Kane" represents a force of will never expressed quite so well by an American filmmaker. "Citizen Kane" educates not only filmmakers but teaches discerning viewers how to watch a movie of personal expression. The first hour is so good that I keep watching when the plot drags after his affair with Susan Alexander is exposed and costs him a governorship ("Candidate caught in love nest with 'singer,'" is a wonderfully inspired headline; note the single quotes around "singer," implying that Alexander is not to be confused with Maria Callas). The news-reel sequence remains fresh and exciting upon repeated viewings, using techniques that Woody Allen employed to dulling effect in "Zelig." The movie is watching simply for the dialogue, for which Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles received the film's only Oscar; note Mr. Bernstein's speech about a girl in a white parasol; Welles reciting his "declaration of principles" with Joseph Cotten's reminder, "That's the second sentence you've begun with I;" Welles, as Kane, completing a drunken Jed Leland's negative review of Alexander's Chicago operatic debut because, says Leland (Cotten), "he wanted to prove he was an honest man; an aging Welles telling his financial adviser from youth that he still should be addressed as Mr. Thatcher "because you're too old to be called anything else;" but most of all Cotten with Welles on election night and proposing a toast to "love on my terms, because those are the only ones you'll ever get." And we haven't mentioned "Rosebud," Gregg Toland's cinematography or Bernard Herrmann's score. All the more reason to watch this American original. And when the credits roll, remember that Welles made it age 25!
Nashville couldn't understand "Nashville," and no wonder. Anyone who watches "Nashville" for insights to country music probably views "The Godfather" for tips about olive oil. Altman's 1975 film uses country music and the people who perform, listen to and produce it as a metaphor about America in the '70s, when, as Warren Beatty said in "A Parallax View," released a year earlier, "everytime you turned around, one of the best people in the country was getting shot." Anyone who has seen the film and visits the Parthenon, where the final scenes are filmed, may feel a sense of unease. Listen closely and you can hear Haven Hamilton pleading to the stunned crowd, "Show them what we're made of! They can't do this to us here! This isn't Dallas; this is Nashville!"
The ending is astonishing, tidying up some plot lines and leaving others open ended. A star is born when the Albuquerque character and a gospel group minus its leader belt out a Nashville standard, "It Don't Worry Me." The Sueleen Gay character, meanwhile, suffers one final indignity; Albuquerque, on the same stage and with the same ambitions, achieves the fame that might have gone to Sueleen, a waitress/stripper/wanna-be recording artist, had Sueleen gotten the microphone first.
We never know what caused the Kenny Frazier character to crack; perhaps like Mark David Chapman (John Lennon) he was obsessed with the Holden Caulfield character in "Catcher in the Rye," although we can feel fairly certain that he did not share John David Hinckley's (President Reagan) obsession with Jodie Foster since "Taxi Driver" would not be released for another year.
Watching "Nashville" for the first time, you may feel protective of Barbara Jean's character for reasons you can't immediately explain but will learn all too well. I feel the same urge to shout at the screen, warning her character of possible danger, that I experienced in "From Here to Eternity," knowing that Pearl Harbor was imminent and would change everything.
Characters transform before our eyes. Del Reese (Ned Beatty), bored with his marriage to a Nashville superstar and as a father to hearing-impaired children, cares enough at the end to lead a wounded Haven Hamilton to safety. Hamilton (masterfully played by Henry Gibson) would stomp anyone in his path to create a hit record but is the first to care for Barbara Jean in her moment of need.
Sure, some of the songs are terrible -- some country music is terrible -- but could anything be more poignant than Barbara Jean's rendition of "My Idaho Home" or Keith Carradine singing "I'm Easy" in a nightclub where four of his conquests look on equally with lust and bewilderment. Country singers, like stock-car drivers, inspire tremendous loyalty and jealousy among their fans, which Altman depicts beautifully when Scott Glenn, a devoted fan of Barbara Jean, leaves the Opry as Connie White appears to sing a tribute to her ailing rival. Hamilton's character is never better than when between songs he asks listeners to send Barbara Jean a card and "tell her that Haven told you to write."
Altman would rate among the greatest directors -- as the American Fellini -- if this were his only effort. Despite its convoluted plot structure, "Nashville" achieves greatness and searches for truth. If the 1970s shaped your life in any respect, this is a movie experience not to be missed.
it's a whole 'nother country
People criticize that "Giant" is too long. What do they want? A movie by George Stevens about Texas with big-name stars simply had to be vast and sprawling. I've never read the book but imagine that Stevens condensed dozens of written pages into single scenes. Much of the movie's greatness comes from the scenes without dialogue, such as Hudson and Taylor's different expressions when looking over their grandchildren, the Mexican youngster playing outside the church during Sal Mineo's funeral -- and especially the reunion scene between Hudson and Taylor in Virginia.
I prefer "Giant" to "A Place in the Sun," for which Stevens won his first of two Oscars as best director. Elizabeth Taylor was in both pictures but in "Giant," five years later, has become a mature, independent woman of substance who could stand up to Rock Hudson on any issue. And to think she was 24 when the picture was released!
James Dean's character development is a little unclear -- where was Errol Flynn to play an aging drunk? -- but it's interesting to watch Dean's character drift into racism and Hudson's become more open minded. Taylor's purifying effect upon Hudson -- and the lack of such a person in Dean's life -- is most evident.
Who knew what lay ahead for Hudson, Taylor, Dean, Dennis Hopper and Sal Mineo. (I never cease to be moved by the newspaper headline: "Angel Obregon comes home today"). All suffered tragic fates, which makes "Giant" like "The Misfits," although clearly a child of the 1950s and in the hands of a master director at the top of his game. Stevens masterfully invests the minor characters, like Chill Wills and Jane Withers, with lifelike roles. Or Jett Rink's right-hand man/handler who advises, "We haven't changed anything. Changes tend to throw you!" Carroll Baker gives it her best shot and Earl Holliman is, well, Earl Holliman.
Essential viewing, one instance of Hollywood competing successfully with TV. Some lines you may never forget, like: "Jett, you want to know something true? You're all through."
The Bedford Incident (1965)
best of its kind
Channel surfing, I stumbled across this movie on TCM and must say, "Wow!" As a child during the Cold War, I remember the tension between America and Russia, which this film captures well -- at least from the U.S. perspective. Richard Widmark's performance tops that of Humphrey Bogart in "The Caine Mutiny," strawberries or not. Sidney Poitier fits his role like a glove -- the scene between Poitier and Widmark in the latter's cabin is splendidly acted, allowing the viewer to get inside Widmark's head while not giving away too much -- and Martin Balsam gives another example why he was one of the screen's greatest supporting actors. It's better than "Fail Safe," sparing us Henry Fonda's hysterics as president. The tension builds aboard ship until a breathtaking climax. One worth watching.