Sunday, June 7, 2009

A summer movie viewing list

Okay, so this post is a little self-indulgent (what, like most of them aren't?) But I have this excellent brother-in-law, Alex, who graduated from college last month. As a grad gift for his upcoming summer, my wife suggested we give him some movies he might not have seen. We did just that, along with these notes about them, to serve as a "guide" for his summer viewing. Try it at home!

Hey Al-

Happy Graduation! Rebekah asked me to put together some movies that you might enjoy watching over the summer. I decided to write up a quick explanation of what they are and why I thought you’d like them; you’re certainly under no obligation to watch them in this order, but if you don’t, well, I take no responsibility.

I figure you’ll wanna start off easy and light, so the first disc is Rifftrax’s destruction of Reefer Madness. Rifftrax is the new venture by Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, who were the Sci-Fi Channel-era hosts of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and this disc is one I reviewed for DVD Talk—I think it’s their finest one to date. Reefer Madness is just a terrible, awful movie (a hilariously inaccurate 1930s warning of the dangers of “marihuana”), and they take it to pieces.

While you’re in the laughing mood, no summer would be complete (for me, anyway) without at least one Marx Brothers movie. My current favorite (having grown a little tired of obvious choices like Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera) is Monkey Business, which is one of the purest, all-laughs movies—Groucho does some great stuff with a clichĂ©-spouting movie gangster (and his moll, played by the ridiculously sexy Thelma Todd), Chico and Harpo have some great two-man scenes, and it’s got the usual tiresome romantic subplot, but the leading man is fourth brother Zeppo (who seems to have a pretty good sense of humor about the whole thing), so it’s not that bad. Favorite scene: Groucho and the gangster’s wife on the veranda at the party.

The Brothers Marx aren’t usually listed among Steven Soderbergh’s influences, but I think there’s definitely a Marxist spirit floating through his little-known, no-budget effort Schizopolis. He made this film in the mid-90s when his career was in the dumper (his first film, sex, lies, and videotape, was a sensation, but he couldn’t buy a hit after that); it rejoiced his creative batteries and within a couple of years he directed Out of Sight and he was hot again. It’s a strange, almost sketch-comedy revue sort of thing, but there’s some inspired weirdness and some real laughs; the Criterion DVD is especially good because of the commentary track. Soderbergh usually does commentaries with his screenwriters, but since he wrote this film himself, he interviews himself on the commentary (and the “director” version of himself is an insufferable, pretentious boor); that track is nearly as funny as the movie.

Jean-Luc Godard’s films are a clear influence on Soderbergh (and particularly on Schizopolis), so I’ve included by favorite Godard film, Band of Outsiders. It’s a thrillingly clever, off-the-cuff little crime movie with a love triangle at the center. This is one of Tarantino’s favorite films—he named his production company, A Band Apart, after his phonetic pronunciation of the film’s original French title (Bande a part), and the scene where the trio dance in a cafĂ© clearly inspired a famous scene in Pulp Fiction.

Another Tarantino favorite is your next disc: the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. This 1974 movie was way the fuck ahead of its time; it tells the story of a subway car full of hostages held for a big ransom—the kind of construct that made Die Hard and all of its imitators work years later. QT clearly like the idea naming the gang after colors; he swiped it for Reservoir Dogs. There’s a big-budget remake of it coming out this summer, and while it looks pretty good, I can’t imagine it’ll stand up to this original, or to Walter Matthau’s terrific (and bad-ass) work in the lead.

Matthau also stars in your next film, Hopscotch, a wonderful spy comedy from the early 80s. His loopy, hangdog charm and matter-of-fact air makes him totally believable as a CIA field agent who has been pushed into a desk job and is not the least bit happy about it. I saw this movie on network TV when I was a kid (and the network TV audio, replacing Ned Beatty’s inventive profanities with even stranger substitutions, is offered on an alternate audio track) and have loved it ever since.

From a spy comedy to a spy drama: Notorious is one of Hitchock’s lesser-known masterpieces—Psycho, Rear Window, and Vertigo tend to get more love these days. But this one is just wonderful, with beautifully understated performances by Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman and one of my all-time favorite Hitch shots (a crane shot that moves from a high angle wide of a fancy party in to a close-up of a key in Bergman’s hand). And the black-and-white photography is gorgeous.

Same goes for Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which is also has my second-favorite Orson Welles performance (after Citizen Kane). He comes about an hour into the movie, following one of the best-prepared entrances in movie history; shortly thereafter, he delivers one of my favorite speeches ever (it’s the one about the cukoo clocks).

There’s no easy thread to get us from The Third Man to Robert Altman’s Nashville, except that they’re both great. This is the quintessential Altman movie—20 or 30 important, fully drawn characters, bouncing off of each other over the course of a long weekend in the country music capital. It’s a long movie (nearly 3 hours), but do yourself the favor of watching it all at once.

After the heavy ending of that movie, it’s time to lighten up. You’ve got to have a Buster Keaton in there, so I’ve copied The General for you; a flop at the time of its release, it has since been acclaimed as not only his best film, but one of the best movies ever made. It has a terrific momentum and some amazing gags, and always keep in mind when watching his movies that Buster did all of his own stunts.

I prefer Keaton to Chaplin, but just barely; City Lights is my favorite Chaplin movie. Chaplin can get a little maudlin at times (part of the reason Keaton has aged better than he has), but there are some terrific comic sequences here (especially the boxing match and the opening with the statue), and the full-throated emotion of the ending is something else (it gets me every time).

Finally, back to where we began, with a Rifftrax. Rebekah tells me that you love Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and so do we, and so does Neil Patrick Harris, who sits in with Mike Nelson for this very funny commentary.

So there’s those, buddy; hope you enjoy them, have a great summer, and can’t wait to see you soon!

1 comment:

  1. Nice list, something I could also use. Both old and new flicks.