After a four month hiatus the time feels right to jump back into this series. Actually this little break was rather unintentional, or atleast I never meant for it to last this long…I just had other things I wanted to write about for awhile. There is still an eclectic mix of things in the pipeline, as I hope is always the case. Intellectual curiosity is a good thing. For now though, we’ll grab some popcorn (and chocolate covered peanuts) and head into the theater.
It seems appropriate to be writing about Hoosiers on the cusp of NCAA basketball’s Final Four. I assure you the timing is purely coincidental though fitting. Hoosiers is a mid 80’s film set in the early 50’s, which right off the bat gives it a timeless quality. It stars Gene Hackman as a former college basketball coach who, it is eventually revealed, lost his job after hitting a student. Coach Norman Dale has been out of the game for over a decade when he is thrown a bone by an old friend, the principal of a small Indiana high school in need of a coach. Anyone who knows basketball knows that it is especially revered in Indiana, and that is reflected in the story. There’s the usual conflict between the coach and his players, who just don’t understand his methods. Throw in a budding romance between the coach and a fellow teacher (who can’t stand each other at first of course), a town drunk who also happens to be a basketball guru (played by Dennis Hopper in an Academy Award nominated performance), a gifted but troubled player who is reluctant to join the team, and townsfolk who are just a bit too passionate about their team (overcompensating for their empty and meaningless lives of course) and you’ve got yourself a nicely layered movie. Hoosiers has all the typical clichés that were originated in Rocky and have become staples in sports films like Rudy, Tin Cup, Remember the Titans, and Major League. Hackman and Hopper give nice performances and Hoosiers is a more than decent flick. It’s a bit predictable and the characters could be flushed out a bit more (it’s less than 2 hours long…another 20 minutes would have been peachy), but there’s no denying it has a place amongst the great sports movies. That place just may be a little lower in my opinion than many others’.
It should become apparent as one reads through these 100 movies that I am a Jimmy Stewart fan. By my count there are 6 of his movies on the list. It is ostensibly his Everyman quality…nice guy, small towner, “aw shucks” attitude that draws fans to Stewart, but the truth is much more complex. Jimmy’s talents had many facets, and in his career he played diverse roles…small town nice guy, hardscrabble cowboy, sophisticated man-about-town. Three directors guided Stewart through a large chunk of his 92 films – Frank Capra (3 films), Anthony Mann (8 films) Alfred Hitchcock (4 films). It is his work with Hitchcock that, in my opinion, is the most unique. Vertigo is much like that book that you were assigned to read in school and really resisted, but upon being forced to read it you rather enjoyed. I am not normally a huge fan of the suspense thriller genre, and years ago when I first made myself watch Vertigo (afterall, any self respecting Stewart fan just HAS to), I was fully prepared to not really like it all that much. However, much to my surprise I was sucked in by the singular story and the mesmerizing performances. The plot is far too intricate to describe here, but suffice to say it involves deception, dual identities, murder, obsession, and of course vertigo (i.e. paralyzing fear of heights). Jimmy strays about as far away from the “aw shucks” nice guy persona as he would ever get, but doesn’t cross too far into villainous territory. Vertigo demands repeat viewing so one can digest all of Hitchcock’s twisted goodness, but it is time well spent…although I do recommend following it up with a screwball comedy as a palate cleanser.
58 American Beauty
Speaking of screwball comedies…well, okay, maybe not so much. Any movie that climaxes with a person’s brains being spilled onto the kitchen floor probably can’t really be called a comedy. Actually this film is one of those that is rather difficult to categorize, but all things considered I must admit that American Beauty makes me laugh. Maybe it is the spot on accurate portrayal of the desperation and despair inherent in modern suburbia. Perhaps it is because it takes the average happy family myth and turns it on its ear. That’s a common theme nowadays. Numerous sitcoms portray families as dysfunctional trainwrecks of unhappiness. But that is a relatively new development in entertainment. Before American Beauty only two examples, both of them television shows…Roseanne and Dallas…stood out as having such a cynical approach to family life. I never particularly liked the Roseanne show, and Dallas was a soap opera. Kevin Spacey, who I enjoy in just about everything he is in, is brilliant in American Beauty as a man going through a mid-life crisis while dealing with a loveless marriage and a brooding & timid teenage daughter. As Lester Burnham, Spacey deals with his unhappiness like an NFL linebacker deals with a running back trying to bust up the middle for a big gain. Lester begins smoking pot with a voyeuristic teenage neighbor, starts working out in order to impress his daughter’s gorgeous cheerleader friend, and quits his suit and tie gig (blackmailing his young boss for a year’s salary on the way out) at an advertising firm in lieu of working the drive thru at a local burger joint. Meanwhile, Lester’s materialistic, oddly driven wife begins a torrid affair with a real estate rival and the daughter begins an eccentric romance/friendship with the pot smoking teenage neighbor. That kid has issues of his own, with a military man for as father and a quietly desperate mother who lets her husband run roughshod over the family. All the stories converge into a strangely violent climax. Kudos can certainly be given to Annette Bening as the wife, Carolyn, Wes Bentley as voyeuristic neighbor Ricky, and the always entertaining Chris Cooper as Colonel Fitts…but the engine that drives American Beauty is Spacey, who makes every movie he is in better than if he was not present.
57 This Is Spinal Tap
I am a big fan of “mockumentaries”, movies that present the story within the framework of a supposedly real documentary. The undisputed king of mockumentaries was made in 1984 by director Rob Reiner (fresh off his success as “Meathead” on All in the Family), and stars Michael McKean (Lenny from Laverne & Shirley), Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer (known to 21st century audiences as the voice of Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, and others on The Simpsons). Guest would go on to be a successful director of mockumentaries himself, as well as being the husband of 80’s scream queen and the still smokin’ hot Jamie Lee Curtis. This Is Spinal Tap follows a fictional British heavy metal band as they venture out on an American tour and includes flashbacks that tell the group’s backstory. Sharp eyed viewers will spot cameos or bit parts by now well known faces such as Paul Shaffer, Fred Willard, Fran Dresher, Dana Carvey, Anjelica Huston, and Billy Crystal, but it is the interaction of the three band members that makes the movie great. The band is…well…not that bright, which leads to hilarity. There are several iconic scenes that anyone who has ever seen the film will never forget…the amp that goes to 11, the spontaneous combustion and “unfortunate gardening accident “ (among other things) that continues to take the band’s revolving door of drummers, the Stonehenge set, the black album cover. And the songs – Spinal Tap produces songs with titles like Hell Hole, Sex Farm, Breakfast of Evil, and Swallow My Love. Basically This Is Spinal Tap takes everything we think we know about the awesomeness of the rock n’ roll lifestyle and throws it all out the window. You’ll never take rock music as seriously again, and that’s not a bad thing.
Sometime in late childhood I became fascinated with Batman. I am not sure when or why. I was never a comic book sort of kid, and the early 80’s were dominated by Superman, with the movie franchise starring Christopher Reeve. I suppose Batman’s backstory fascinates me, with him being just a normal guy who is psychologically scarred as a child after seeing his parents gunned down by street thugs. Batman is not from another planet and he has no superpowers. He is just a man who kicks ass and takes names. He does have a dual identity, and he does happen to be filthy rich, but I can forgive those indulgences. I really enjoy the old television show starring Adam West and Burt Ward. It only lasted for 2 seasons in the late 60’s (the almost identical timeframe as the original Star Trek series – who was in charge of TV shows in the 60’s and why did they keep cancelling great ones??) and was long gone before I was even born, but repeats were shown on some channel that I cannot recall when I was younger. Then in 1989, Tim Burton, who had achieved great success with Beetlejuice, decided to bring The Caped Crusader to the big screen. As I recall there was some trepidation with casting funnyman Michael Keaton in the titular role, but as it turns out he was perfect…much better than those who followed him – Val Kilmer and George Clooney. Of course the real star of this particular movie is Jack Nicholson as The Joker. I’ve never been a huge Nicholson fan…he’s more of a persona than a great actor…but he was the absolute best Joker. There are many that would say that the late Heath Ledger surpassed Nicholson’s achievement, but I feel like Ledger’s performance is too often looked at…subconsciously…through the prism of his untimely death. At any rate, all the stars aligned on this rendition of Batman on the big screen, and 20 years later it holds up quite nicely.