FIVE STARS Part 4: “Hannah and Her Sisters” to “Lord of the Rings”
Folks, did I promise you another installment before the week was out or didn’t I?
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Michael Caine, Carrie Fisher
An actress, her sisters, and the two men that love them…well, at times, it seems like all of them. Michael Caine turns in an intriguing performance as a man torn between his love of his wife and a love affair with one of her sisters, with the Thanksgiving holiday bookending all the neurosis and complicated love lives that become entangled in their web. Though not a central character, Allen himself almost steals the show with his running schtick of spiritual crises and religious conversions.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Director: Richard Lester
Starring: John, Paul, George, and Ringo
How did The Beatles overtake Elvis in terms of status as pop culture phenomenons in the United States? Well, simply put, they did everything he did and, unlike all other major musical acts of that era, they utilized television and the silver screen to their full advantage in addition to their music in order to achieve optimum media saturation. However, where Elvis made mostly throwaway flicks where he’d single a couple sings and kiss the girl, The Beatles instead opted out of traditional Hollywood fare and made a farce comedy in the style of the Marx Brothers to get their point across. Which was, at the time, that while some of their music may seem to some like harmless pop, they took what they did seriously. This was not conveyed through the plot of the film, mind you, but rather its quality and effectiveness. Its humor, tone, and visuals resonated; creating iconic moments on film that are still copied and heavily referenced to this day.
Head: The Monkees (1968)
Director: Bob Rafelson
Starring: The Monkees (Davey Jones / Michael Nesmith / Peter Tork / Mickey Dolenz), Victor Mature
By complete coincidence, we go from The Beatles to the group that was created by network television as a parody/send-up/cheap copy of the Fab Four. Whereas The Beatles had enough credibility from the beginning to convey their career into something more than what was originally planned for them, The Monkees hit a wall when they attempted to branch out creatively. The idea with this film was for the group to expand beyond the trite goofiness of their television show and show that, behind the shallow and crass commercialization of which they never made any pretenses about were four legitimately talented individuals in their own right. No, Mickey Dolenz didn’t suddenly start pretending to be a legitimately good drummer, but he did want people to know he was chosen as much for his prowess as a comedic performer as for simply having a certain look to him that fit with the rest of the group. Nesmith and Tork, both actual musicians (though Tork became one after being chosen for his role in the group), were passable songwriters in their own right and wanted people to know. Davey…well, he just wanted to dance and sing. So these four men wanted to demonstrate it by making the biggest surreal arthouse picture in history. The result was a confusing mess, but Christ was it beautiful. And really, it’s a shame it didn’t work, because if this is the direction The Monkees had continued in, they might have done some even more fascinating stuff. Alas, it simply wasn’t meant to be, despite the involvement of folks like Frank Zappa and Jack Nicholson in this project. No, seriously.
Director: Michael Lehman
Starring: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannon Doherty
I don’t know if this is going to make sense, but "Heathers" always came across to me as a cult movie that deserved to be much more. After several years of romantic comedies and dramas centered on the trials and tribulations of white teenagers, "Heathers" came along to take some of the darker aspects of the humor in the films and turn the dial as far as it can go without going completely over the deep end. Christian Slater has his first big break of his career, and sadly he never topped his performance in this film. Although it’s hard to the portrayal of a character whose basic premise is that he’s a teenaged force of nature. Other films attempted to ape and combine this film’s motif murder, terrorism, and a sick revenge fantasy against the High School elite that goes horribly wrong, but they all fell woefully short (with perhaps "Jawbreaker" as the most glaringly bad example).
Heavenly Creatures (1994)
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet
Before he staged the battle at Helms Deep, Peter Jackson directed this true story of a love affair between two teenaged girls in the 1950s that resulted in murder after the two were forced apart by their parents. The parallels drawn between the strange fantasy world the girls construct and the outward condemnation of any and all things homosexual at that time are obvious, but Jackson’s execution of the heavy metaphor is so masterful you hardly notice its heavy-handedness.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, John Hurt
Up until the release of "Iron Man," this was perhaps the best example of a comic book movie gone right: a director who understood and appreciated the tone and spirit of the character, a perfectly cast lead hero, and a willingness to provide both casual and hardcore fans with exactly what they’re looking for while not taking itself too seriously. To boot, it’s probably the most fun comic book movie to watch period – both in terms of the pacing of its action and its visual style.
High and Low (1963)
Tengoku to Jigoku / Heaven and Hell
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyoko Kagawa
Kurosawa uses crime and suspense to comment on the conflicting priorities inherent within Japanese society in this 1963 film about an executive at a shoe company that must make some very difficult decisions. The second act of the film suddenly turns the focus entirely on the chase for the culprit of the crime, but Kurosawa is enough of a master to make the switch anything but disruptive to the viewer. One of Kurosawa’s best.
Home Movies (1999-2003)
Before "Metalocalypse," Brandon Small brought tamer fare through the animated eyes of a child bearing his own name (and most likely based on him) who has aspirations to be a respected and lauded filmmaker with the aide of his two best friends. The real star of this show, though, is H. Jon Benjamin as "Coach McGuirk" – the closest thing to a father figure in Brandon’s life who is also the furthest thing from an adult on the show. Advice such as "Brandon, you should never feel bad about lying to your friends…or your parents…or your government. Or God" will always ring true.
Homicide: Seasons 1-3 (1993-1995)
Hands-down my favorite police drama of all-time. Hell, Andre Braugher alone makes these early episodes worth going out of your way to see, although he’s also helped by a cast that seems to have perfect chemistry. It’s a shame that this show seemed to lose its way in the last season or two, and that it never really found the audience it would’ve needed to sustain the feel and presentation of the first three seasons.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Director: The Coen Brothers (Joel Coen credited)
Starring: Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman
Tim Robbins is a mailroom clerk who stumbles into the job of Chairman after a company’s board decides to intentionally tank the corporation their former chairman, Waring Hudsucker, just doomed with his sudden suicide. The only problem? Robbins has invented the hula hoop. Definitely my favorite Coen Brothers film.
I’m Not There (2007)
Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Richard Gere
If you’re a fan of Bob Dylan, you will love this movie. If you’re not a fan of Bob Dylan, you certainly will be after watching Todd Haynes tribute to the various facades and personas adopted by the most influential lyricist of the 20th Century. What’s amazing is that none of the stunt casting distracts from the stories told in the film and, to be honest, you can’t imagine how it could have worked if Cate Blanchett WASN’T cast as Dylan during his "rock star on pills" period.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Even if it’s not Kurosawa’s best film, "Ikiru" is at the very least his most emotionally touching film. Again, Kurosawa cleverly crafts a tale that serves as both a touching story of a man seeking to make value out of the whole of his life through selfless acts of charity while simultaneously indicting post-war Japanese culture for its subjugation to the whims of a newfound corporate structure. Plus, that scene on the swing (which is featured on most DVD covers for the film I’ve seen) is the single most beautiful shot I’ve ever seen. Ever.
Inherit the Wind (1960)
Director: Stanley Kramer
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, Gene Kelly
Spencer Tracy is transcendant as the defense for a man convicted of the once punishable offense of teaching Darwin to his students. As good as he is, though, the real highlight is Claude Akins as Rev. Jeremiah Brown, with whom Tracy spars on the witness stand. The real craft in this story isn’t simply in emphasizing intellect over irrational fear, but that it makes Akins as Brown a man for which you genuinely sympathize with and understand…even if his belief and approach flies in the face of everything you believe.
Invader Zim (6-Disc Series) (2004)
Sick, brilliant, artistically dense, and dark. You knew it was too good to last, particularly on Nickelodeon. Truly the best animated series that network has ever put on the air.
John Adams (3-Disc Series) (2008)
Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, Stephen Dillane
A lot of folks when this series debuted equaled their lauding of its entertainment and artisitic value with complaints that historical dramas don’t occur with nearly the level of accuracy, quality, and frequency as they should. What those folks miss is that the mini-series isn’t successful because it’s based on John Adams the person, but rather that it’s based on David McCulloch’s biography of Adams. McCulloch has made it a point to blur the line between historical writing and literature, which wouldn’t be so ridiculous if everyone were as masterful at their craft as he is. And, yes, Paul Giamatti is goddamn great as Adams and you’ll fall in love with Laura Linney as his wife Abigail.
The Johnny Cash TV Show: 1969-1971 (2-Disc Series) (2007)
There are tons of performances on this DVD that are worth checking out, particularly if you’re a fan of Cash and/or the music scene as a whole in the late 1960s. But really? Ray Charles performing "Ring of Fire." ‘Nuff said.
Justice League Unlimited (2001)
No, seriously. Although they’ve lagged far behind in the past decade when it comes to the business of comic books, DC has absolutely trumped Marvel when it comes to animation. Take this, for instance, a series which went from a slightly unheralded action-adventure romp to every comic book geek’s wetdream. Hell, even if you don’t get and/or appreciate the appearance and cameos of the most peripheral characters (fucking Vibe is just walking around the Watchtower like it’s nothin’!), you’ll still enjoy its overarching story structures and fun-filled forays into fantasy, science fiction, conspiracy, and good old-fashioned comic book battles.
The Last Emperor (1987)
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole
Legendary Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci was the first outsider ever allowed full access to film inside the walls of the Forbidden City, which served as the imperial palace for the emperors of China for hundreds of years. The film is a biopic of Pu-Yi, the last emperor of China who is removed from power by the Kuomintang (the socialist government that took hold in China in the 1920s), is used by the Japaense as a puppet leader during World War II, and is eventually imprisoned by the communists for aligning himself with the Japanese. There are so many great accomplishments through this film that it’s hard for me to even find the time to name all of them. For one, we’re given the glimpse of a boy who is from birth told he is the "Son of Heaven," and then forced to live an existence of something more than irrelevance. We see the effect this has on his psyche, both in terms of his removal from the Forbidden City and his eagerness to embrace the promise of the Japanese to re-establish him as Emperor despite the foolhardy nature of such a belief. On a visual scale, the film is something more than epic, with shots inside the Forbidden City that nearly took my breath away on first viewing. If that weren’t enough, we’re left to examine the tragedy of Pu-Yi being given everything as a birthright only to see it all yanked out from under him. Multi-layered, poignant, and beautiful, it’s everything an epic film should be. Not everybody would agree with me on these points, particularly film afficianados who would probably point to films made by Bertolucci alone that are superior to "The Last Emperor." However, I cannot and will not deny that I fell in love with this movie the first time I saw it at the age of 15, and repeatedly viewings have not decreased the admiration I hold for it. I’ve said it before, but if I had to make a shortlist of my favorite movies of all time, this would easily be on it and might be at the very top.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means
Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t just brilliant in this movie, he’s also super bad-ass. And you don’t come across too many movies made about this era in American History that can accomplish that.
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Director: Peter Bogdonavich
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd
A dark and gritty coming of age tale about a post-war Texas town in the early 1950s.
The Last Waltz (1978)
Director: Martin Scorcese
Starring: The Band, various others
What was supposed to be The Band’s final performance is one of the greatest and most fascinating musical performances ever captured on film, with appearances from Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, and a slew of others. In reality, as great as they were with their first two ablums ("Music From Big Pink" and their second self-titled album), they had spent the previous eight years toiling with mediocre efforts that couldn’t even touch their early work. What’s sad is that they show in this concert that they were capable of so much more.
Lean on Me (1989)
Director: John G. Avildsen
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Robert Guillaume, Alan North
This was the first film I ever saw with Morgan Freeman in it, and I’ve been enamored with the man ever since. His screen presence in this is simply captivating. He’s effective to the point of hwere many adults would question his approach at points throughout this film, as a child you don’t even question it. This movie also shows why it’s such a damn shame that Robert Guillaume will always primarily be known as the smart-alecky butler "Benson" from the TV sitcom "SOAP" and its spin-off "Benson."
Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), Return of the King (2003)
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, and you dorks can name all the rest off the top of your heads I’m sure.
Beyond being exciting, enthralling, and a visual achievement on every level, it also changed the way that Hollywood does blockbusters. Whereas before any adaptation of a novel or comic book was made with focus groups in mind, with this film was the start of a revolution wherein Hollywood realized that dork movies can make huge amounts of money so long as they’re faithful to a degree so that the most ardent fans of the source material won’t universally pan it. As a result, we now have films like "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight" whose attention to detail and commitment to depth and artistic quality are giving us better "bigger" movies.
NEXT: "M" (the film, not just the letter) to "Pulp Fiction"