Here's my standard top-of-the-month reminder that if you read these entries on a regular basis, find them in any way valuable, want to ensure that I don't get discouraged and give up, you should throw me a few bucks (link's at the top of the main page)—whatever you think a month's worth of near-daily capsules is worth to you. The amount is unimportant. (I suggested as little as $2; $5-10 is more common.) Just let me know you give a damn.
/The Times of Harvey Milk/ (1984, Robert Epstein): 60
Not sure I have anything very compelling to say about this one, which like most documentaries is perfectly fine "for what it is" (a documentary). Archival footage of Milk's public appearances; talking-head interviews with people who knew him; quick history of the gay-rights movement and the Castro District; tears flowing freely during recollections of the assassination...it's all exactly what you'd expect, and while I'm more engaged by the non-fiction account than by Van Sant's dramatization, real excitement is in short supply. Only a couple of Milk's speeches and the candlelight vigil (cue more tears, from me this time) justify visual treatment of this subject, so I mostly feel like its function is to save me much of the time it would take to read The Mayor of Castro Street, at the expense of skimping on many of the more intriguing political details. Also, while there's unquestionably a lurid pull to the saga of Dan White's trial (and subsequent suicide, though the latter happened a year after this film was made; it ends on a now-defunct "the bastard got away with it" note), and I remember sitting there the first time waiting impatiently for the word "Twinkie," devoting a third or so of the movie to the aftermath feels a tad excessive—Epstein works hard to make the case that White got slapped on the wrist because one of his victims was a queer, but I don't really buy that he'd still be alive and in prison today had he only shot Moscone. (Does America partially forgive Oswald if Tippit is black?) In the end, this seems more like the story of a crime than like the portrait of a man, which would be fine by me were it not clear from the first hour that no such thing was intended.
Airport (1970, George Seaton): 65
Funny to read the contemporaneous reviews of this juggernaut (still one of the 50 highest-grossing films of all time, adjusted for inflation—about $550 million domestic in today's money), which almost uniformly treat it as beneath contempt. Wonder what they'd think if I could zip back there in a time machine and show them what today's equivalent looks like. For a big dumb event movie, it's almost surreally adult by current standards, albeit in a shallow, soapy kind of way; even the ostensible "villain" has an utterly banal, real-world motivation for his behavior, never coming across as anything more than a terrified, desperate loser. Nor would any mass audience today tolerate such a slow, patient, methodical buildup. I've never read Hailey, and assume his novels have no literary merit (though critics tarred Stephen King with that same brush...), but in broad conception they seem to be not unlike, say, Casino, employing narrative primarily as a hook in order to explore the working details of a given milieu; enough of that approach survives here to exert a certain behind-the-scenes fascination even in the film's dopier interludes. And let's be honest: It's often preposterously entertaining. When Helen Hayes sat down next to Van Heflin, I got downright giddy anticipating where that must be headed, and yet the abrupt, weirdly sadistic, ultimately forlorn way it played out still caught me off guard. Everything after that is arguably anticlimactic (and starts becoming recognizable as fodder for Airplane! gags), but even the so-called happy ending boasts elements that would be unthinkable now, e.g. Burt Lancaster's sister—an apparently perfectly nice woman we've been given no reason to dislike, and did I mention she's Burt Lancaster's sister? anyone remember Sweet Smell of Success?—arriving at the gate to greet hubby Dean Martin, only to watch him accompany Jacqueline Bisset to the hospital, ignoring her completely..hold on her deflated expression as she realizes her marriage is over...aaaand roll credits (after one last scene to confirm that Burt Lancaster's marriage is also over). Amazing.
The Plague of the Zombies (1966, John Gilling): 64
Pretty typical Hammer experience: The zombies aren't remotely frightening, but it doesn't much matter because there's plenty of fun to be had just watching imperturbable Brits grapple with their existence. André Morell, in particular, makes a truly splendid hero, projecting righteousness and decency in a way that somehow seems genuinely admirable rather than dull...though it helps that the character isn't averse to getting his hands dirty when circumstances demand it, illegally digging up corpses to perform autopsies and surreptitiously opening a window in the villain's house for later re-entry even before he gets booted out. But mostly I just love how polite and well-mannered everybody is, no matter how bizarre or grim the circumstances—that e.g. when two bobbies catch Sir James and Peter disturbing a grave, the expected what's-all-this-then? almost immediately gives way first to proper introductions, then to Sir James successfully enlisting police assistance for his cause. Would've worked on me too; he just sounds so damn credible. Bonus points for a political allegory—zombies as the colonized oppressed—that's
unmistakable without being oversold, fully revealed via a twist ending that I really should have seen coming (it's foreshadowed like mad) but somehow didn't. British readers: Do you still pronounce "Haiti" with three syllables, or was that a period detail? The film's set around 1850 or so, but I don't think I'd ever heard "Hi-ee-tee" before in any context.
/12 Angry Men/ (1957, Sidney Lumet): 69
They're gonna be even angrier when they realize they almost certainly let a guilty man go free, thanks to the well-intentioned crusading of a juror who would likewise have voted to acquit O.J. Simpson. (Looks like I'll be tackling the subject in-depth for the A.V. Club at some point, but in brief: When there are multiple independent pieces of evidence strongly pointing to a defendant's guilt, casting doubt on each one individually does not constitute "reasonable doubt," because it doesn't address the sheer unlikelihood of all that evidence existing to begin with. You'd have to be the jurisprudential inverse of a national lottery winner to face so many apparently damning coincidences and misidentifications.) Terrible law doesn't preclude solid drama, though, and Rose's script is contrived to frequently superb effect, accumulating rhetorical force in direct proportion to Lumet's increasingly claustrophobic mise-en-scène. The ensemble cast, meanwhile, makes for a magnificent cross-section of '50s masculinity, at least as imagined in the movies—E.G. Marshall as Rational Man is my personal favorite, but each one makes an impression, right down to #12 who might as well be Don Draper. More impressive in its smaller, offhand moments (many of which involve Martin Balsam) than when it strives for an emotional crescendo; worst scene by far is Ed Begley's racist diatribe and the corresponding mass "walkout," and Lee J. Cobb's sobbing capitulation (complete with personal backstory explaining what makes him so hostile toward the defendant) clears/ends the room/movie on a horribly false note. But there's no denying the pleasure of heated arguments among willful men* on a sweltering-hot day in a crowded room, photographed by a director attentive both to faces-they-had-then and to precise arrangements of bodies.
* I assume there must be contemporary stage productions that make some of the jurors female, though seems like that would demand a pretty extensive rewrite of those roles.
/Margaret/ (2011, Kenneth Lonergan): 86
Odds are we'll never see a fully realized version of Lonergan's insanely ambitious formal experiment, but this "extended cut" (not "director's cut", please note) gets plenty close enough to thrill. To my surprise, it's not simply a matter of restoring tangential (but nonetheless crucial) scenes that he was forced to remove—turns out he had an elaborate, cacophonous sound design planned, of which there's barely a hint in the theatrical version. Sadly, that element still seems half-finished, becoming increasingly sporadic and clumsy as the film progresses; I'm not entirely sure whether certain bold, alienating effects, like having opera music and house music playing simultaneously during Paul's first scene, were what was intended. But this is nonetheless a much more expansive vision—almost a narrative corollary to Tscherkassky's "Outer Space," in which the helpless heroine is beset not by cinema itself but by the rest of the world, which keeps intruding from the margins. (I can only imagine how much it pained Lonergan to cut the diner scene between Lisa and Darren, which seems expressly designed to teach us how to watch the movie.) Furthermore, the accident is much less central in this cut, to the point where it seems nearly forgotten at times; an entire feature-length movie elapses (90 minutes) before Lisa goes to see the bus driver and sets the ostensible "plot" in motion. And Matt Damon finally feels like he belongs. Minor things I miss from the theatrical compromise: sharp comic cut on Ramon's "May I have your telephone number?" (we don't need to watch Joan say "212-555..."); Joan's stage entrance and hold for applause following a humiliating outburst at home (I bet that was Scorsese and/or Schoonmaker, if the latter helped out); maybe Lisa's slightly less fawning attitude toward Paul (she seems uncharacteristically stupid in the restored kitchen scene, even allowing for how nervous she is). Overall, though, it's now the intimate epic it was always meant to be.
Meatballs (1979, Ivan Reitman): 53
Another case where I know the film well from childhood but can't be sure I ever actually saw it start-to-finish, so no /slashes/. (The most egregious such instance is this film here, which I watched probably two dozen times on cable but still don't include on my master list.) Surprising how sincere—dare I say, how Canadian?—much of it plays, especially since the warm fuzzies extend all the way to Bill Murray; there's something disarming about seeing his sarcastic-slobbo persona inflected with tender compassion, even if some of his scenes with sad-eyed Chris Makepeace smack of afterschool-special. You can really tell it's not a Hollywood movie when Camp North Star wins the Olympiad (SPOILER!) and Reitman doesn't just go straight to the closing credits, or even to the heading-home epilogue—instead, he winds down with a campfire sing-along (involving only the counselors, not the kids, with Murray participating non-ironically) that has no purpose save to cement a sense of fellowship. Still, Meatballs mostly aims to be funny, and apart from Murray, it really isn't: fat-kid jokes, classic-nerd jokes, snooty-rich-rival jokes (though even here, Reitman includes a quick shot of the losing marathon runner from Camp Mohawk being consoled by friends, which is four seconds more than any American film of this type would likely offer), etc. Put almost any other actor in the Tripper role (including such SNL contemporaries as Chevy Chase or John Belushi) and people would barely remember the film exists.
/Five Easy Pieces/ (1970, Bob Rafelson): 68
A beautifully observed false dichotomy, in which the protagonist seems adrift solely because his choices are restricted to stifling genteel privilege or exasperating "cracker" vulgarity. Most of us exist somewhere between those two poles, and there's no reason Robert/Bobby Dupea can't too (perhaps becoming simply "Bob"). Granted, he's a fuckup, but hey, so am I—that malady can be managed. When the film isn't scoring easy points against hicks and snobs alike, however, it creates a remarkably credible world, one that seems largely divorced from the imperatives of standard screenwriting structure. Lois Smith, for example, as Bobby's sister Tita, suggests a complex, fascinating human being who could easily be the focus of a parallel movie (though it might be a Todd Solondz movie), while their father, who could have been employed as either a cheap pathos device or a zombie sounding board, maintains an impassive dignity, appearing suspiciously conscious but yielding nothing. In fact Five Easy Pieces is so undemonstrative (right down to its title) that it seems wrong, somehow, that the diner scene became its pop-culture legacy—it's a classic here's-Jack outburst, a defining moment in the creation of his persona, but it arguably doesn't serve the movie very well, especially arriving as it does (and I'd totally forgotten this) in the middle of a surprisingly lengthy comic interlude involving a couple of hitchhikers, one of whom is obsessed with cleanliness to the point of logorrhoea. That they foreshadow the ending without signposting it is a perfect example of what Rafelson does well here; that somebody capable of making both this film and Head so quickly drifted into irrelevance seems borderline tragic.