May 11, 2011

Movies of Excellence - Spoilers

Ok, back in 3-D; I'm a fast healer ;)

Look, I'm very glad the independent film industry is doing good - really, I am. I thank Kevin Smith even if he did "Go Hollywood", Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Bill Macy, Welcome to the Dollhouse (which was so authentic Jersey) and even Adrian Brody and Milla Jovovich for Dummy (which is an excellent movie; high on the list.) Also to Trey Parker and Matt Stone who won't sell out, period - they like Brian Boitano and that's it. They HATE the MPAA, who pretty much banned their first movie, until people just demanded that they get their South Park movie (and man, was it funny - I've NEVER had an experience in a theater where every single seat was full and everyone simply LAUGHED for 1 1/2 hours straight - ever. We cheered at Empire, we cheered for Indy Jones, we cheered when Clubber Lang went down, but laughing for the whole movie? That was unique. And kids weren't allowed in, so no one had to worry about that noise heh.)

But let's face it, the indie industry also puts out a lot of garbage and weird crap. It's a gamble. So I saw this movie today called "Thumbsucker" and it was...weird. I wasn't sure what the hell they were trying to say. You've got Vince Vaughn as the teacher and Keanu Reeves as an orthodontist channeling Morpheus, an adorable 18 year old boy who sucks his thumb, the unhappy mom and the demanding and non-accepting dad. Lots of moody Elliott Smith music. The kid goes from thumbsucking to ADHD to Ritalin (and flying way too high) to getting stoned with a girl and playing weird games with her to...well I don't freaking know. Eventually he made it to NYU, threw out his pills, stopped getting high and was running through the streets of NYC. Was it good? I don't know. So I started thinking about all the other possibilities, of movies that are still reliably awesome, and came up with a few names. I've already mentioned Of Mice and Men (1992 version), but there's also O. Henry's Full House (1952), an often overlooked gem, and Captains Courageous (1937.) So we'll start with those.

Captains Courageous stars little Freddie Bartholomew set against Spencer Tracey, a group of other fishermen and Captain Disko played wonderfully by Lionel Barrymore. This movie delivers reliable laughter and tears, and really, joy. Trailer Here

Harvey Chayne is a spoiled rich boy who the other kids can't stand, who makes false accusations against his teachers (such as leaving 50 dollars for a teacher to make a test easy without telling the teacher what the money was for or who it was from - he accuses that one of accepting a bribe.) One of my favorite Freddie's lines was about how they had invited one particular boy to a sleepover as part of a plot - he asks "Well what do you want to go around spoiling plots for?" Well, his father is told when Harvey gets suspended, and what is so refreshing is that instead of protecting his precious snowflake, the father immediately apologized for his son and said he would immediately start spending more time with the boy to try and help him change. When his father takes him on a boat ride, the boy brags that he can drink 5 milkshakes if he wants because it's his dad's boat, gets sick and falls overboard. He is rescued by the remarkably talented Spencer Tracey, playing a Portuguese fisherman on a run out of Gloucester. Naturally, like in Sea Wolf, the rich boy is set aboard a tiny fishing boat with a rough group of men and has to spend the next few months with them. Barrymore heard his story, and said he couldn't wager a year's bread against a boy's yarn, and they would drop him off in Gloucester when they were done fishing. The boy keeps yelling, and another refreshing change - Disko delivers a resounding slap to the kid, knocking him to the ground. In amazement, Harvey says "You hit me!" and Barrymore says drily, "Now you jest set there and think about it." Heh; great stuff you don't see anymore.

Over the course of the trip Manuel (Tracey) takes Harvey under his wing and helps him overcome his rotten temperament and learn how to be a real fisherman. There are pitfalls along the way, such as Harvey tampering with another fisherman's line when he and Manuel have a bet with another fisherman on who would catch the most fish. He had just reeled in an enormous halibut and Manuel simply threw it back in, saying, "I no catch big honest feesh like you with a cheater. Go tell all the other feeshies we got no fisherman here!" When the other man, having hooks pulled from his arms, hears Harvey's apology he attacks the boy - Manuel, failing to smooth it over by saying "See, he apologized like good boy", goes medieval on the guy, saying "You touch that keed I keel you, see? ME, Manuel." It's a truly shiver-worthy moment seeing this sweet-natured well-intentioned man go from smiles and apologies to quiet, menacing rage.

Well probably everyone knows the story, so I'm not spoiling it by telling you he becomes a worthy boy and Manuel dies...when Harvey is finally reunited with his loving dad, he says he wants to be with Manuel, that he's got to. He was going to fish in a dorry with him the rest of his life. Fortunately the father is perfectly sympathetic and they end up a wiser boy and father in the end. It is a truly dramatic comedy - that perfect blend of both, that you don't often find anymore. Cuckoo's Nest did it, I think, but that was much darker than this story, which is moving and uplifting and musical right up to the dramatic death at sea. And it was truly dramatic - he knew he was going down but Harvey didn't - he thought they would save poor Manuel. He did end up with the hurdy-gurdy Manuel's father had left him, which had provided so much comfort aboardship. He even hears about how Jesus was a fisherman too, and that there was fishing in heaven. When Manuel asks him if he didn't have a song in his heart so big he just had to let it out? Don't you never feel like that? I still could cry, but the nice kind of tears. Disko's slap is in the trailer as well as Manuel's threat. The movie might be there too.

If you like bizarre humor (and I do) it's worth watching Chris Elliott's spoof, Cabin Boy.

O. Henry's Full House is a collection of O Henry stories played by a star cast including Anne Baxter. Particularly touching was The Last Leaf, wherein a bum who actively commits petty crime every fall to get himself sheltered in jail for the winter, finally decides to get his act and life together, only to find himself accidentally arrested and sent away again. A perfect O. Henry twist, classic. That one is melancholy and full of pathos. Of course you've got Magi and The Ransom of Red Leaf, which is a comedy. Well worth watching - it's usually shown around Christmas because of Magi and the Last Leaf.

Finally, Of Mice and Men 1992. Now I'm not particularly a Steinbeck fan - I find him to be an angry, bitter writer. (Hmmm...) Like Dickens. And I normally don't like adaptations too much (which is why I just listed three of them ;) ) and if I do, I usually like the original much more than the remake. Case in Point - the Poseidon Adventure. The remake blew; you could not compete with the original cast in that case. But this time I was totally won over by an excellent and tragic movie (you really have to be up for this one; it's very sad) acted by one of the best casts I've seen assembled for such a piece. And the fact is, much as I love Burgess Meredith, he just didn't pull George off right. You've got Gary Sinise (the most underrated actor I've ever seen) as George, guardian to the seemingly lovable, frighteningly strong retarded man Lenny (John Malkovich!) whose previous guardian had died. They are always on the road, looking for the next job as itinerant farmhands. Lenny is excellent at it, being so amazingly strong, but you get a hint right away that he gets into "trouble". In fact the movie begins with a woman running, torn and beat up, through a field and a team with dogs hunting, Lenny hiding waiting for George. Then they get on the road and it gets funny, happier, and pathetic. Lenny makes George tell him the same story every chance he gets - tell it George! "Guys like us," answers George, "are the loneliest guys in the world." "Yeah, but not me and you George, you tell it tell it" and George drawls, "That's right, not us, because we've got each other." He then spins a tale about how they are going to save up their money and go in together on a little farmhouse and Lenny will get to tend the rabbits. But he mustn't let the cats get the rabbits - to which he replies "I'd break that goddamn cat's neck!" They laugh together, they travel, they eat together - Lenny threatens to move to a cave in a particularly hilarious Malkovich moment. When they reach their next job, George makes sure to show Lenny where to hide if he gets "in trouble" again, and George will come for him. In a particularly foretelling moment, George throws away a dead mouse Lenny is petting in his pocket and trying to hide. That mouse ain't fresh, Lenny, I didn't do it out of meanness, as Lenny weeps bitterly. George promises to get him a pup as soon as he can, because they're sturdier and won't die so easy from Lenny's not-so-gentle handling. Bad move, George.

What's really striking is the bond they share - all they have is each other in the world during the Great Depression. On the farm, we find that guys like us really ARE the loneliest people in the world - they each sleep alone even though they're all in a bunkhouse, are mistreated by the boss-man, and we meet the *wonderful* Ray Walston, all broken from years and years doing the most backbreaking work. Walston has a mongrel dog that is also old and broken down - when the men start telling him he needs to shoot the dog, Walston says he can't because he's had him since he was a pup...they keep pushing, and Walston finally agrees to let them go shoot the dog. When he finally hears the shot, he curls up on his bunk and weeps, and so do I. He ominously hints to George that he shouldn't have let them shoot his dog, because it was HIS dog; HE should have shot it himself. George takes the hint.

Walston hears George's story and asked him if it was true about the house; George says it is. Walston asks if he could please throw in with them; that he had $300 to contribute. They were reluctant, but he convinces them and they plan to buy the house at the end of the month. Lenny amazes everyone (and busts the hell out of the boss-man's hand because he hit George, and George turned Lenny loose to take care of him; it's a frightening display of what Lenny CAN be and do without George's restraint) but then he does kill the pup, and inadvertently kills the boss-man's wife, the only woman in the picture. George had warned Lenny by slapping him - the only time you ever see him slap Lenny - and telling him to stay away from her, she was a rat-trap and that's it. But she was very lonely and pushy, and got Lenny alone by the end...and that was the end of her too. He pets women too hard as well, and he snaps her neck. Well, I needn't tell you that when Lenny went to his hiding place and George ran after him as the men followed, searching with their guns, that George remembers the lesson of the dog...he tells Lenny not to turn around, and Lenny says "Tell it to me, George, tell about them rabbits again" as Sinise takes aim with his gun. It was his dog, and he was going to put it down or no one was...and frankly Lenny's dangerous. In the end George is riding the rails alone, no house to look forward to and no companionship. Like I say, it's incredibly sad and you really have to be up for that one, but it's still a must-see if you love fine acting. Teaming Malkovich, Sinise and Walston like they did was just brilliant; I wish Sinise had gotten the Tom Hanks lead in Green Mile; he was much more suited to it. Which is another very sad movie but well worth watching.

So there you have some rainy-day entertainment, depending on what you're in the mood for. Like I say they're all reliably good and moving, all have laughs and tears, and all have excellent performances.

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