Buried Treasures, Hidden Gems: And Still More Potpourri
Movies Due for a Revisit
Goodnight, My Love (1972)
w./d. Peter Hyams
I love film noir; cynical private eyes in snap-brim fedoras exchanging verbal barbs with silky villains and sultry femmes fatales. I love it so much I’ll forgive a lot in even the weakest offerings. Goodnight, My Love pushes all the right buttons for me, and while it’s not weak, it works because it is so damned ritualistic, almost bordering on pastiche.
The plot, well, you could almost guess it: set in 1946, a pair of downscale private eyes (Richard Boone, Michael Dunn) are hired by cool blonde Barbara Bain to find her missing boyfriend. But Bain is — as femmes fatale tend to be — a little less than truthful about her absent beau’s business and why that’s of interest to Victor Buono’s bad guy, Buono filling in the erudite villain part Sidney Greenstreet used to play in movies like The Maltese Falcon (1941).
But none of that matters, not really. Part of the movie’s appeal — to me, anyway — is how reverently and sentimentally it makes sure to touch all the film noir bases. It does what a genre movie does in that it does everything we expect it to do and hits those targets squarely. And Hyams, to his credit, has the smartass repartee down. After the steamy Bain has engaged the services of the boys:
Boone: How do you suppose a broad like that chose us?
Dunn: Francis, didn’t anyone ever tell you about a gift horse, that you should never look one in the mouth?
Boone: I wasn’t looking at her mouth.
Or after Boone has – for the umpteenth time – lost out in a tussle with a bad guy:
Dunn: Did you get a look at the guy?
Boone: Only his fist.
And after Dunn asks if Boone got a look at his assailant’s shoes…
Boone: Well, I didn’t catch the brand name, but it should be easy enough to check. I got his footprints all over me.
Throughout, Hyams dialogue is just fun to listen to, especially with Boone’s dry-as-the-Sahara delivery on one side, and Dunn’s lilting drollery on the other.
And that brings me to the heart of my recommendation: the Boone/Dunn duet. It’s not just gimmick casting; the hulking, craggy Boone and diminutive Little Person Dunn, because Hyams captures an underlying warmth — real friendship — that, at times, comes close to being touching.
Look, for all its salutes to flicks like The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet (1944), The Big Sleep (1946)et al, this isn’t great cinema (although it looks pretty good for something made on a TV movie budget), but it is a lot of fun and especially juicy for people like me, who miss this kind of tough guys with mushy hearts stuff.
Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
w./d. Steve Zaillian adapted from the book by Fred Waitzkin, Searching for Bobby Fischer: The Father of a Prodigy Observes the World of Chess
For the life of me, I do not know why this movie (currently rated 100% on Rotten Tomatoes) didn’t do better, coming in #135 for the year and earning just $7.2 million against a $12 million budget. While this was Zaillian’s first directorial attempt, he’d been previously Oscar-nominated for his screenplay for Awakenings (1991) which had also been nominated for Best Picture; no slouch he. I don’t know; maybe the idea that this was a movie about – does it get any more boring? – chess scared people away. But Zaillian, working with cinematographer Conrad Hall (who got his own Oscar nod for this film, ironically losing to Janusz Kaminski for Schindler’s List which Zaillian also wrote and for which he would take home the statuette) and editor Wayne Wahrman, does for chess what Norman Jewison did for stud poker in The Cincinnati Kid (1965); turn it into a surprisingly nail-biting edge-of-seat sporting event.
Loosely based on Fred Waitzkin’s account of his son Josh’s childhood chess career, the movie gives us seven-year-old Josh (Max Pomeranc gifted with the eyes of a Keane painting) who, watching the lightning chess players in Washington Square Park, becomes interested in the game. He soon discovers he has both an affinity as well as a passion for chess. His sportswriter father (Joe Mategna), looking to see if there’s some real muscle to his son’s ability hires a chess tutor (Ben Kingsley) to cultivate the boy’s talent. It becomes apparent that Kingsley was also a one-time young prodigy who crashed and burned, and those emotional scars as well as his view of chess as war have left him mercilessly pushing Josh to be someone he’s not:
Kingsley: Do you know what it means to have contempt for your opponent?…It means to hate them. You have to hate them, Josh, they hate you.
Pomeranc: But I don’t hate them.
And then there’s Josh’s dad who becomes infected with victory fever, seeing only the trophies on the mantle not that he – as well as Kingsley – are killing Josh’s love of the game.
It’s a movie about parenting, about adults living out their ambitions through their children, a story where the purity of a child comes up against the less pure motives of the adults entrusted with his care. Josh has to learn chess, but the adults around him have to have their come-to-Jesus moment, learning that more important than winning is letting a child be a child.
It’s a beautifully, delicately made movie with Hall’s camera telling as much of the story as Zaillian’s writing, and carried along with a quietly majestic James Horner score.
Maybe the movie resonates more with me now than when I saw it because as a parent, I’ve come to realize how quickly the window of childhood closes, while the guilt of not allowing a child to enjoy it lasts a lifetime.
In Bruges (2008)
w./d. Martin McDonagh
It’s a crime thriller. Well, not really.
It’s a dark comedy. On occasion.
It’s a buddy movie. Sort of.
It’s a fish-out-of-water story. In part.
It’s a suspense flick. At times.
That In Bruges is all of that but never completely any of it is what gives the movie its unique flavor and unpredictable course, earning McDonagh an Oscar nod for his screenplay.
Holding all those disparate parts together is an underlying story of guilt and redemption, obligation and loyalty, played against the beauties of the Belgian city of Bruges and riddled with Boschian imagery.
Colin Farrell is a rookie hitman for mob boss Ralph Fiennes, but he screws up; tasked with a hit on a priest, Farrell accidentally kills a young boy. Brendan Gleeson is the trusted, reliable hood Fiennes orders to take Farrell to Bruges to avoid the local heat and await instructions. Farrell is suicidally torn by guilt over the boy’s death and is hardly in a mood to enjoy Bruges’ attractions, architectural and otherwise, as Gleeson does.
Farrell: There’s a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that’ll never be opened. And I thought, if I survive all of this, I’d go to that house, apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose for me. Prison… death… didn’t matter. Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn’t be in fuckin’ Bruges. But then, like a flash, it came to me. And I realized, fuck man, maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin’ Bruges. And I really really hoped I wouldn’t die.
In their days in Bruges, as Farrell falls in with the bizarre cast of a bizarre local film production, he finds reason to live, while Gleeson, who has come to look on his young companion as a redeemable soul, is ordered by Fiennes to execute Farrell, and there, as The Bard says, lies the rub.
McDonagh captures the alien identity of Bruges beautifully, shooting the city as some kind of fairytale limbo for both men in which each manages to find his spiritual center. Gleeson, Farrell, and a hysterically foul-mouthed Fiennes are wonderful in their roles, and theater veteran McDonagh has given them great stuff to play. This was McDonagh’s first feature film, but in his transition from theater, he brings with him a love of language and an almost Pinteresque flair for character oddity.
Fiennes has come to Bruges to confront Gleeson over his refusal to kill Farrell:
Gleeson: Harry, let’s face it. And I’m not being funny. I mean no disrespect, but you’re a cunt. You’re a cunt now, and you’ve always been a cunt. And the only thing that’s going to change is that you’re going to be an even bigger cunt. Maybe have some more cunt kids.
Fiennes: Leave my kids fucking out of it! What have they done? You fucking retract that bit about my cunt fucking kids!
Gleeson: I retract that bit about your cunt fucking kids.
Fiennes: Insult my fucking kids? That’s going overboard, mate!
Gleeson: I retracted it, didn’t I?
I don’t think even Scorsese or Tarantino could hit that note!
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)’
d. Mike Nichols
w. Aaron Sorkin, based on the book Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History by George Crile.
Between Nichols and Sorkin, and throw in Tom Hanks in the lead and Philip Seymour Hoffman in an Oscar-nominated supporting actor turn, you’d have a right to expect something that sparkles; something sharp, witty, articulate, insightful, smart, beautifully executed by a letter perfect cast. And you’d be right! Well, uh, at least until the movie’s Third Act which, there not being one, is a bit of a narrative problem.
Charlie Wilson was a real-life Texas congressman, a notorious womanizer, hard-partier, yet someone with a firm grasp on how political machinery works. In 1980, Wilson, frustrated by the U.S.’ tepid response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, begins to put together a covert effort to get aid to the Afghans helped by Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman), an abrasive CIA operator.
From Wilson’s growing passion for the cause through his trying to get Pakistanis, Egyptians, and Israelis to cooperate in the effort, Nichols and Sorkin deftly manage to balance between the comic, the dizzying, and the engrossing. As one might expect, Sorkin’s dialogue shines and Nichols has the right actors to buff it up. From Wilson’s first meeting with the frumpy, dumpy Avrakotos:
Hanks: You’re no James Bond.
Hoffman: You’re no Thomas Jefferson, either. Let’s call it even.
And Hanks, to his secretary (Amy Adams) after meeting with the new president of Pakistan:
“You know you’ve reached rock bottom when you’re told you have character flaws by a man who hanged his predecessor in a military coup.”
For about two-thirds of the movie, you start feeling like you’re watching the sharpest political tale since Wag the Dog (1997) with the added plus that this one is true (more or less).
But then the movie goes to sleep. The mujahadeen get their arms and the bulk of the Third Act is a montage and score card of downed Soviet aircraft and blasted tanks. The payoff doesn’t feel like a payoff. For all the footage of exploding Soviet hardware, dramatically it’s a bit of a fizzle.
The movie somewhat redeems itself in a disturbing, foreshadowing coda. Wilson is concerned that once the Soviets have been driven out, Afghanistan falls off the congressional radar, and at a party, Avrakotos takes Wilson aside with a warning about what this could lead to:
Hoffman: There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse… and everybody in the village says, “How wonderful. The boy got a horse” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, “How terrible.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight… except the boy can’t ’cause his leg’s all messed up. and everybody in the village says, “How wonderful.”
Hanks: Now the Zen Master says, “We’ll see.”
Coming out in 2007, it’s easy to see Charlie Wilson’s War is just as much about the unintended consequences we were living through at the time as it is about goodtime Wilson finding a moral cause. For that, and for those terrific first two acts, I still recommend it as worth a re-visit.
When I first began this series, I thought I’d write just two or three installments. But the longer I worked on these, the more movies came back to me. See, I’ve been walking the planet a good long time, and I have been in love with the movies since I was old enough to walk on my own to the neighborhood Elwood Theater. Over those decades, I have seen a lot of flops (most deserved, some not) and a lot of hits (most deserved, some not), but I’ve loved them all; I love just going to a movie.
Remembering these overlooked or forgotten movies has taken me back to the days I saw them on the big screen, and maybe my judgment of them as worth revisiting is overly-colored by nostalgia. So be it.
As one installment led to another, it struck me I could very well end up writing these things forever; like I said, I’ve been around a while and that’s a lot of movies to sift through. Unfortunately, I have a dog to walk, leaves to rake, classes to teach. But I hope maybe this will spark some of you to rifle your own memories for those little tucked-away gems, the movies that when you sit with your fellow movie geek friends, prompt you to say, “You never heard of (fill in beloved box office flop here)? Man, you have got to see it!”.
- Bill Mesce