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No. 2 (tie): “Casablanca” (1942)

“I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”
~~Rick Blaine

“Casablanca” is remembered as the motion picture industry’s happiest accidental success, and there’s much evidence to suggest the film deserves that reputation. This was a motion picture of meager ambitions: tight budget, hastily scribbled lines, an ending even leading lady Ingrid Bergman didn’t know until the last moment. It should have been a fiasco.Yet in a display of jaw-dropping magic, these elements combined to create a sly, wistful, sizzling romantic drama and one of the greatest films ever made.

Surely there are scads of essays and reviews to support this claim, but it’s better to speak from the heart. And “Casablanca” reminds this heart why directors keep making motion pictures: because they create worlds outside our own, with characters with hurts and longings that mirror our own yet seem so much bigger. We have room to explore all our feelings in these worlds. “Casablanca” reminds this heart why people love movies: because a cherished few take us on journeys we don’t want to come back from. “Casablanca,” adapted from Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” takes us on such a trip, with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman leading the way. The film captivates so partly because of their talent and their palpable chemistry; they don’t make onscreen pairings like this anymore. They don’t make leading men like Bogart anymore, either, actors who exude charm and crack wise while hinting at emotional damage that’s nearly beyond repair. When Bogart bites into lines like “I stick my neck out for nobody,” he doesn’t leave a crumb behind.

Thus, Bogart is a fine choice to lead the A-list cast of “Casablanca.” Bogart is Rick Blaine, a scornful merican expatriate living in Casablanca, Morocco, during World War II. Rick runs Café Américain, the local watering hole with a back room for gambling, and his ever-so-slight nods determine who sees that back room. His café is home of sorts for the downtrodden and the ones who trampled on them: Nazi officials like Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), a member of the German army, and self-serving local police captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains); underhanded wheeler-dealers like Signor Ferrari (first-rate character actor Sydney Greenstreet) and small-time crook Ugarte (Lorre, always a delight), who stole coveted letters of transit — a free pass from German-run Europe to Portugal to the U.S. — from two murdered couriers; and refugees hoping to get to America. Rick welcomes them all, but he’s loathe to take up any cause that doesn’t benefit him … until Ilsa Lund (Bergman), the woman who burned him, turns up at the café wanting papers for herself and her husband Victor (Paul Henreid). This is the one thing that flaps the seemingly unflappable Rick: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Bogart’s weary, wry delivery of that famous line remains unmatched. It also suggests Ilsa’s reappearance is about so much more than letters of transit.

So many iconic lines are there in “Casablanca” that the movie nabbed six of the 100 spots in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years … 100 Movie Quotes.”  There must have been a cap to let other films in, for nearly every snippet of dialogue is exquisite enough to deserve a spot. Every line has a purpose. Unearthing old hurts or covering them up. Generating intimacy or backing away from it. Kowtowing to German authority or subverting it. “Casablanca” is one of the rare films with a script where every line feels deliberate and faultlessly placed. Arthur Edeson’s cinematography offers stunning backlighting for a script like this, with his palette of blacks and grays surrounding Bogart — the lighting in Bogart’s drunken scene with pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson) is masterful — and special lighting used to envelope Bergman in a hazy cloud. Details like this do more than set the mood; they provide a look for the characters that is potently unforgettable.

The performances, too, are the kind that don’t fade. Bergman’s Ilsa is innocent  and yet has seen too much, sagged under the weight of the mistakes she’s made. Her beauty is ethereal, undeniable, but it’s her spirit and her will, dented though not broken, that beguiles us. She’s bewitching, and still she finds her match in Bogart, an actor renowned for his ability to play cynics ready with a quip and a cigarette. He deserves more attention for what he can do with his face, at once handsome and remote and amazingly expressive. Every time he says “here’s looking at you, kid,” those eyes make it different. Just as every time we see “Casablanca” it is different. It is never less incredible.

(Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait 10+ years to watch “Casablanca” again, discover it’s awesome and have to revise your Top 100 list. Again.)

C’est moi (in 10 movie facts)

Everyone’s friendly neighborhood Kaiderman and the ever-contemplative and sage Darren seem to have tagged me in the latest meme scuttling across the floor of our movie blogging underworld. And while I am duly honored, I do feel somewhat undeserving.

Mostly because I confess that I had no idea what the word “meme” meant.

And to think you call yourself an "English major"!

Then Merriam-Webster online came to the rescue and I tossed away that unsightly dumb-dumb cap and prepared to share 10 movie-related factoids about me:

  1. “Gremlins” the movie scared me so badly I slept with my bedroom light on for a year. I’ve never seen the movie again, and throughout the Furbies craze I couldn’t pass one of those critters without shuddering.
  2. The first movie I ever reviewed — for my high school newspaper, The Voice — was “Romeo + Juliet.” I gave it an “A.” Oh, to be that young and swoony and stupid again.
  3. When we were 13, my cousin Katie and I decided to turn “Seaquest DSV” into a movie, wrote the script and sent it to NBC. Our talent so stunned them they were rendered totally incapable of writing back.
  4. My friends call me The Walking Imdb because I can name a movie or an actor or a director with almost nothing to go on (my personal best: “that singer chick in that chick movie with the house” = “Foxfire”).
  5. I go through random periods of mania where I get obsessed with a film and watch it until I have it memorized. Right now I’m stuck on “Casablanca.” Gin joints and hills of beans and all that.
  6. I used to review movies for a small-town newspaper. The editors ran a mugshot with my column, and before long people started coming up to me in the grocery store/Walmart/the liquor store and say, “Hey, you’re that Movie Girl, aren’t you?”
  7. My affinity for Mel Brooks comes from my parents, with whom I watch “Blazing Saddles” approximately 42 times per year.  It’s a bonding thing.
  8. I haven’t found an eligible man yet who wasn’t disturbed by my preference for action films over chick flicks. (If you know any in the Carolinas, send them my URL.)
  9. When I visited Boston a year ago, I jogged through the Common pretending I was Billy Costigan in “The Departed.” The homeless people looked at me funny.
  10. The idea and the name for M. Carter @ the Movies came from my friend Jason, who needs to start his own blog. If the world can handle Two Girls One Cup, man, they can handle A Dick on Flicks.

And now, because this is a meme (see, Darren, I used the word properly!) that is akin to the Dread Cheese Touch, I must appoint five more fellow bloggers to tell their stories in 10 movie facts. They are:

“Kick-Ass” does — and boldly

Imagine what will happen when Hit Girl's (Chloe Moretz) pesky teen hormones kick in.

“With no power comes no responsibility.” You jonesing for a pretty little gift-wrapped theme? Well, that’s as close as “Kick-Ass,” adapted from Mark Millar’s comic book series, comes to providing one. Because Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass” is not a film with a stately message about heroism. It is anarchy — ironic, lurid, violent, profane anarchy. One of the toughest characters, for example, is a preteen (Chloe Grace Moretz) who gets soundly thrashed by grown men triple her age. But don’t go crying for Hit Girl or she’ll punch you in the jugular and then call you the “P-word,” or, if she’s really irked, the “C-word.”

That’s just a taste of what “Kick-Ass” serves up, and more accurate one than the promos illustrate. So intently does the trailer play down the level of violence that when it happens on screen, it’s twice as stupefying, since “Kick-Ass” is billed as a hipper, younger, more-action-less-quips “Mystery Men.” (Probably the production company realized few people would flood Fandango with debit card numbers for tickets to see kids — including a pig-tailed 11-year-old girl — get beaten senseless by adults.) This movie earns every inch of that “R” rating with shootouts and brutal beatings and knife fights and enough swearing to make dockworkers blush. The fact that it’s mostly the “impressionable ones” doing the cursing will have some whipping out their soap boxes and dusting off those megaphones. But, as the morality police often do, they’ll miss the point. The point is there is no point. “Kick-Ass” is all about flash, and you can’t have flash with heroes running around, capes billowing in the wind, running into a wall and saying “oh, fudge.”

However, “Kick-Ass” contains a fair amount of such blunders, most of them made by Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson, perfectly cast), who’s nobody special and is self-aware enough to know that. He pals around with fellow comic book fans Marty (Clark Duke) and Todd (Evan Peters), pines for the hot It girl (Lyndsy Fonseca) he knows he’ll never have because he’s invisible to her, and then because she thinks he’s gay. Almost on a whim Dave decides to change his fate by inventing a heroic alter ego named Kick-Ass, a guy with a sporty aquamarine costume and absolutely zero superpowers. The first time out is rough (he gets stabbed and hit by a car) and the second attempt isn’t much better, but camera phones capture the fight and soon Kick-Ass is viral vid sensation. His perseverance is dumb but a little noble, even admirable, and he coaxes other burgeoning heroes out of hiding, including Hit Girl (I love Chloe Moretz more in every film) and her father Damon (Nicholas Cage), who calls himself “Big Daddy” and dons his best Batman-knockoff, and Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the son of a local mafioso-type (Mark Strong) who proves to be Kick-Ass and his crew’s most formidable enemy. Together, they’re quite the amusing yet halfway capable gaggle of misfits.

Speaking of “amusing”: The trailer also promotes “Kick-Ass” as a barrel of laughs. It isn’t, though that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t have its moments. The jokes, when they crop up (usually in the form of offhand comments), are quite funny, with Cage and Moretz playing against expectations of how a father/daughter hero team might act. (His response to her sarcastic request for a puppy instead of a knife: “Oh, child … You always knock me for a loop!”) The “we don’t need no stinkin’ superpowers” angle also tickles the funny bone because it’s used just often enough. Two of the best throwaway moments involve Red Mist leaping off a dumpster (“oh shit, that kind of hurt”) and Kick-Ass’s question of how to find Hit Girl. Her sarcasm is blistering: “You just contact the mayor’s office. He has a special signal he shines in the sky; it’s in the shape of a giant cock!” Kids today, they way they talk.

Just released, this adaptation has courted controversy already for the reasons above. With its unrepentant brutality and language and fearless approach, “Kick-Ass” isn’t for the righteously indignant crowd. For everyone else? It’s damn fun chaos. Somebody pass me the weird-sounding Bazooka.

Grade: B+

Vienna Teng will not take your stapler

Movies are my life. (Newsflash, right? That’s like getting Paris Hilton to admit she’s been “a little naughty.”) But sometimes my love of films and my love of music collide in unusual and unexpected ways, and I just can’t wait ONEMORENANOSECOND to tell you about the experience.

It happened last night at a concert on my university’s campus. Vienna Teng, an absurdly gifted singer/songwriter/pianist/composer, gives a humdinger of a concert, and one that always threatens to double as a comedy show given her dry and stellar sense of humor. She’s released four must-own albums, and last night played a song from “Dreaming Through the Noise” — pictured here — called “Whatever You Want.” Now, this song —

Are you sitting down, movie nerds? Because you need to. Trust me.

……………………………Drumroll……………………………

THE SONG WAS INSPIRED BY AND DEDICATED TO MILTON FROM “OFFICE SPACE.”

I know. I KNOW. I am unashamed to say that I geeked out. Fully and totally. When I talked to her after the concert, I put my nerd hat on again. Then she mentioned that “Office Space” is one of her favorite movies, and that was it. It became a Chernobyl-style situation. Movie geek and fan geek ooze all over the place. WE TRADED FAVORITE QUOTES FROM THE MOVIE. Oh, my soul.

It was not pretty, people. But Vienna, bless her heart, is nothing if not a musician who appreciates her fans and their loyalty.

So Vienna Teng. She’s an ace musician and she has great taste in movies. I should know. I was there.

I just wish I’d thought to ask her to autograph my Swingline.

Review: “In the Soup” (1992)

Most all true Steve Buscemi fans would be hard-pressed to explain the reasons for their infatuation with this unassuming actor. His sparkling personality? Buscemi isn’t likely to win any “life of the party” awards in his lifetime. His dashing good looks? Well, “classically handsome” isn’t a phrase you’d attach to this face. So what’s the secret to his magnetism? Probably it hinges on his ability to seem bitter and ironically detached from life, which has pushed him around, ignored him, beaten him down, made him … average. But Buscemi makes “average” very appealing.

Paramount to understanding the appeal of Alexandre Rockwell’s “In the Soup,” a curious little wisp of a buddy comedy, is understanding that the film relies on Buscemi’s abilities. This is another part that feels tailor-made for Buscemi, or maybe it’s that he has a way of slipping into every part and making them seem tailor-made for him. (He and Frances McDormand have that in common.) So if the odd charms of Steve Buscemi aren’t lost on you, you’ll find yourself rooting for his Adolpho Rollo, an unemployed budding filmmaker with a 500-page script and not enough cash to turn it into a movie. Actually, he doesn’t have any cash — none to pay his ever-feuding landlords (Francesco Messina, Steven Randazzo), none to take out his beautiful neighbor Angelica (Jennifer Beals), whom he keeps promising will be the star of his film. She has learned not to trust men who go on and on about how beautiful she is; that’s how she got stuck with Gregoire (Stanley Tucci, killer-funny in a bit part), the crazy Frenchman she married for a green card. Adolpho assures her some day he’ll be somebody, but why should she believe him? Broke is broke. Divine intervention is required.

Then, in a kind of deus ex machina (the cinema gods have a kooky sense of humor), Adolpho finds Joe (Seymour Cassel), a possible buyer for his script. Joe, a clear foil for Adolpho, is many things: vivacious, suave and possessed of a carpe-diem attitude. He’s also a smooth-talking grifter who associates with some rough characters, including his thuggish brother Skippy (Will Patton), and a midget/gorilla team of drug dealers. Cassel relishes the part and infuses this trickster with enough effervescence to make us wary of his game at the same time we get swept into it. Adolpho seems to know he has no choice but to go along with a guy like Joe. After all, his mother (Ruth Maleczech) likes him.

That’s the thing about Joe: everyone likes him. In motion pictures you can and cannot trust characters everyone likes; you also never quite know what makes them tick. All you know is that they’ll change someone’s life irreversibly and there’s nothing to be done about. So it is with Joe, played with such vigor by Cassel that his possible dirty dealings and obvious mental instability fade into the background. Cassel relishes the part and throws all his energy into it, sometimes dangerously toeing the line to overacting but never crossing it. This leaves Buscemi to do what he does so well: play the straight man, the perpetually sarcastic but perceptive observer who lets life happen to him. The odd couple pairing works reasonably well despite a relative lack of character backstory on both parts. Knowing so little about Adolpho and especially Joe occasionally creates more frustration than the air of mystery Rockwell undoubtedly aims for. There is, however, some merit in a film that ends without boldfacing who every character is, what he has learned and how that knowledge has changed him.

Other parts of “In the Soup” provoke more curiosity than outright enjoyment. Rockwell elects to shoot in black and white, which dates the film even though it’s unclear of the time period and fairly screams “this is art.” The choice is serviceable, but is it necessary? There isn’t much of a storyline and very little action to speak of. As a film, a work of cohesion with a discernible plot and character arcs and action, “In the Soup” falls short. But as a celluloid scrapbook of snapshots — Joe front-and-center, Adolpho hovering at the edges — the film has a retiring charm not unlike the one Buscemi has built his career on.

Grade: B-

Review: “Idiocracy” (2006)

“Welcome to Costco. I love you.”
~~ Costco greeter

Films about the future have a tendency to push certain rather optimistic ideas: technological advancement; heightened intelligence; evolution. Even those with less-than-positive views of time forthcoming, like “A Clockwork Orange,” depict humans as creatures still capable of higher-order thinking skills. They are capable of affecting technological change. In so many futuristic movies, progress is assumed.

You know what Mike Judge thinks about directors and moviegoers who make assumptions? Rearrange the order of “ass” and “u” in and you’ll have a clearer picture. Or just watch “Idiocracy,” Judge’s hilarious, barbed satire masquerading as a crude, rude, doorknob-dumb comedy. Judge, see, he does not pity the fool who harbors bright dreams and aspirations for the future of mankind. His future contains no advancement or progress. His future contains a movie called “Ass,” an Oscar darling (it won Best Screenplay) that spends 90 minutes with the camera trained on naked buttocks. And let’s not forget The Violence Channel’s most popular show, “Ow My Balls!”

Don’t be misled by gags like this, or the hoards of idiots and the idiotic things they say (example: “Why come you got no tattoo?”); satires don’t come much sharper than “Idiocracy.” Judge’s true genius lies in the fact that he can make movies that look dumb and inconsequential but carry the unmistakable sting of truth. (Think back to Johnny Knoxville’s “Jackass.” Did you watch it? Did you laugh? Are you getting that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach yet?) The “Office Space” creator is blithely unafraid to show the future as he sees it: a tragic dumbing-down of mankind. Joe (Luke Wilson), a military man, becomes his mouthpiece. Average in every way, Joe volunteers, along with prostitute Rita (Maya Rudolph), for a secret government hibernation project. I’m sure you know it goes wrong. Joe and Rita wake up 500 years in the future, in 2505, and discover something is missing from the world, something called “all the smart people.” How did this happen? The narrator (Earl Mann, cheeky little devil) anticipated this question and has an answer ready: “Evolution does not necessarily reward intelligence. With no natural predators to thin the herd, it began to simply reward those who reproduced the most, and left the intelligent to become an endangered species.”

The wall-to-wall hilarity in “Idiocracy” develops as Joe and Rita discover that they are part not of an endangered species but an extinct species. Only Mike Judge could dream up a world like this one, where the U.S. president (Terry Crews) begins his presidential addresses with one word (“shiiiiiiiiiit”); holds a contest to elect the Secretary of Energy and thinks the 12-year-old winner (Brendan Hill) is a safe bet; has a Secretary of Treasury (Sara Rue) everyone calls “Fun Bags”; and sees no problem watering crops nationwide with an energy drink — Brawndo, which actually exists — because “it’s got what plants crave: electrolytes.” Joe and Rita, two Einsteins in a world of Forrest Gumps, find a totally inept guide in Frito (Dax Shepard), who went to law school at Costco (only because his father, an alum, pulled strings). Joe’s brain catches the eye of the president, and soon he’s embroiled in a race to save himself from certain death in a prison smackdown by solving the whole country’s problems.

“Idiocracy” is such a comic gem that it’s difficult to know where the fun starts and ends. The endless parade of moronical characters is a joy to behold, with Shepard proving again his ability to play dumb is second only to Lisa Kudrow’s. Crews and his “cabinet” (including David “Michael Bolton” Herman) have a ball waxing dumb, and their spirit is catching. Running gags like the one about Brawndo — it’s got what (fill in the blank) crave — don’t get old because they’re so blatantly on point. Most crucial to the looniness is Luke Wilson as Joe, the quintessential no-frills Everyman. His shock and disgust at this world of Starbucks handjobs and Brawndo drinking fountains is muted enough to draw big laughs. And dread. For when the laughing stops, “Idiocracy” leaves us with a sense that not only is this future inevitable, it might be here already. Brought to you by Carl’s Jr., no doubt.

Grade: A

My thought on today

No. 32: “Happiness” (1998)

“I wake up happy, feeling good … but then I get very depressed because I’m living in reality.” ~~Bill Maplewood

When you think about it, there aren’t that many kinds of happiness. How different, really, is one upbeat, bouncing happy person from another? They aren’t. The reasons for happiness vary, naturally, but happiness itself, as a state of being, is … indistinct, generic. Miserable people, on the other hand, are like snowflakes. There are thousands, probably millions, of ways to be unhappy. In essence, happiness makes us common; misery makes us unique.

Such is the way that director Todd Solondz, an odd, dark little man with an odd, dark little vision, sees the world, and such is the way he paints that world in “Happiness,” an ensemble drama so uncomfortably funny that it belongs in a class of its own. Contrary to the film’s title (is that sarcasm, Mr. Solondz?), none of the people in this world are happy. “Happiness,” set in New Jersey, is a veritable geyser of melancholy. Everyone deals with that unhappiness in different ways. Some, like smug stay-at-home mom Trish (the perpetually overlooked comedic genuis Cynthia Stevenson) and her aimless sister Joy (Jane Adams), labor so hard to project an air of contentment that they almost fool themselves. Others, like shy loser Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Trish’s husband Bill (the phenomenal Dylan Baker), funnel their sadness into juvenile, illegal and immoral hobbies. And some, like Trish’s mom Mona (Louise Lasser), watching her marriage dissentegrate, just weep to the lady at the condo rental office, who tells Mona “divorce is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Coming from a lithe, blue-eyed blonde with up-to-there legs, that’s almost insulting.

On and on the misery merry-go-round goes. You’ve got to wait your turn to hop on; this ride is full. Trish’s sisters Joy (Jane Adams), a broke wannabe musician, and Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), a successful author who kept her New Jersey apartment because she loves “living in a state of irony,” find themselves grasping at relief — usually in the form of any male attention — from the tedium of life. Their father Lenny (Ben Gazzara) has 86’d his 40-year marriage to Mona because he “needs space”; for what he’s not quite sure, since he’s “in love with no one.” One of the saddest characters of all is Kristina (Camryn Manheim), Allen’s frumpy neighbor who finds him in a drunken stupor and resorts to caressing his face to get human contact. There’s an elegant sadness to this scene, the kind that threatens to knot up in your stomach, because we know Kristina. She works with us or rides the subway with us or lives in our building.

Right. So the rotten core of “Happiness” has been established. Why should anyone pick up this strange and disturbing film, let alone weather the full 140 minutes of loneliness and rejection and repressed anger? That all depends on the viewer’s threshold for boundary-pushing subject matter. Solondz’s treatment of children, for example, is questionable. They are not respected or treated with particular kindness; to be blunt, they are objects passed around by adults, used as needed and then discarded rather cruelly, or dismissed altogether. The toughest subplot involves Bill’s growing inability to repress his pedophilia, then a truly shocking, core-rocking scene where he hatches a plot to give in to his urges. Solondz does not write him as a monster but as a man held hostage by his perverse desires. Baker plays him as such, proving he has the talent to do the unthinkable: humanize a pedophile.

Solondz takes similar risks in his grimly comic script (if you like your humor icky/grim), like crafting a joltingly honest sex talk between Bill and son Timmy (Justin Elvin) or Helen admitting that she’s “so tired of being admired all the time.” Solondz makes no bones about the fact that his film is a shock-and-awe campaign, that he will not capsule-up this bitter pill to make it go down smoother. This makes him an uncommon director who’s either reprehensible or commendable for refusing to water down his vision. Question his morals if you want, but you can’t question his gumption. He takes chances few others touch.

Desert Island DVDs: The Big 8

So you find yourself, in true “Lost” fashion, stranded on a desert island in the vast sea, with nothing but your wits, your wiles and your good looks to keep you company. (OK, so it sounds a little nonsensical. Life doesn’t always have to make sense, does it? Willingly suspend your disbelief, people.) Since there’s no sunscreen, the sun’s going to dispatch that lovely complexion right quickly. With no one to parlay to your thrust in verbal jousting matches, the wit will be the first to go. And since there are no objects of lustful desire, the wiles, well, they aren’t worth a fig.

But wait! Suddenly you remember that you had the forethought to pack not one, not two but eight DVDs before the terrible stranding went down! Because you, die-hard movie lover, unlike 98 percent of the world’s population, know what’s really important: not sunscreen or non-perishable canned goods or a first aid kit or even a chummy volleyball named Wilson, but films. A world without water is palatable, but a world without movies?

That’s just crazy talk, is what that is.

Here’s my humble list of eight movie-films — divided into what I deem to be eight “essential” categories or groups — I’d require to keep me entertained on this neverending island venture:

 

Action

Why: Despite the a-changin’ times Bob Dylan crooned about, strong female action heroes remain in short supply in the world of film. And so James Cameron’s tense-as-hell, gripping, action-dense thriller stands apart because of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), a fierce heroine who throws punches with the best of them yet retains that elusive quality — empathy — so little seen in action heroes. With Weaver’s iconic, brilliant performance, every viewing of “Aliens” feels like the first time.

 

Comedy

Why come I picked this: You were expecting something a little “Holy Grail”-ier, perhaps? No offense to the Greatest Movie Ever Made, but there are times when British tomfoolery hits the spot and times when a desert island dweller wants to see that the world-at-large — poor people, with their dwindling IQs and those climbing Costco Law School prices — is far, far worse off than she is. Plus, there’s nothing like 10 seconds of “Ow, My Balls!” to clear those island doldrums riiiiight up.

 

Drama

Why: Back in his younger days, Marlon Brando wasn’t just a contender, he was THE contender — for coolest cat in any room, best method actor alive, name the category and he’d be fighting for a top spot in it. Though his career is studded with amazing and accomplished performances, his turn in “On the Waterfront” as one-time boxer Terry Malloy shows the actor in total command of his gifts. Pair that with a stellar ensemble cast (including heavyweights Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden) and it’s a knockout. Every time.

 

Foreign

Why: Some people like their thrillers fast-n-furious, with lots of explosions and a juggernaut soundtrack that drowns out any hope of character interaction. Me, I like a slower burn that takes longer to take effect but packs a whallop when it does. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s beautiful film about 1984 Socialist East Germany, living under the thumb of the Stasi secret police, fits that bill and contains a stunning performance by the late Ulrich Mühe. This is a movie that will change your life.

 

Horror

Why: Cast aside all thoughts of the 85 remakes that followed John Carpenter’s low-budget 1978 classic that frightened viewers everywhere way, way down in their primal scare spots — they matter not. The original “Halloween” has no equal, for no other horror film has managed to create a character 1/16 as terrifying as Michael Myers, a masked force of evil that cannot be stopped. Carpenter outdid our imaginations in ways that still make us cry “uncle,” and that’s one hell of an achievement.

 

Independent

Why: Sometimes stories are compelling because the characters are extraordinary, or their deeds are, or their circumstances baffle or astound us. This is not the case with “The Station Agent,” an unassuming but enormously touching independent film about three wildly different people who, through nothing more than proximity and chance, stumble into one another’s company and discover they share one thing: loneliness. Never underestimate the power of simple human connection to touch the soul.

 

Romantic Comedy

Why: Love stories that don’t follow a traditional arch, that take bold risks and play about with our sense of time and space and memory, are rare, so when you find a good one the tendency is to hold on tight. Few romantic comedies manage to be as poignant, achingly bittersweet and unexpectedly funny as Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” an unconventional tale of two lovers that suggests, gently but clearly, that sometimes love does not conquer all or end in smiles and rainbows.

 

War

Why: Quentin Tarantino is a director who delights in messing with our heads, taking what we know of linear storytelling and throwing it in a Cuisinart; for him, originality is king. In that respect, “Inglourious Basterds” may well be his one true masterpiece, at once a tongue-in-cheek rewrite of World War II’s ending, a war film, an ensemble drama, a madcap comedy, a wild adventure. And now that I’ve seen it once, I can’t spend another second of my life without Christoph Waltz in it.

——

Complete Catalogue of Desert Island DVD Lists

  • Tara from 101 Goals in 1001 Days
  • Shawn from 7 Dollar Popcorn
  • Andrew from Andrew at the Cinema
  • Castor from Anomalous Material
  • Dylan from Blog Cabins
  • Nick from Cinema Romantico
  • Wynter from Cinemascream
  • Aiden from Cut the Crap Movie Reviews
  • The Mad Hatter from The Dark of the Matinee
  • Lady Hatter (posted on Hatter’s blog)
  • Sebastian from Detailed Criticisms
  • Elizabeth from Elizabethan Theatre
  • Andy From Fandango Groovers Movie Blog
  • Steve from The Film Cynics
  • Alex from Film Forager
  • Ripley from Four of Them
  • Ruth from FlixChatter
  • Marc from Go,See,Talk!
  • Jason from Invasion of The B-Movies
  • Caz from Lets Go To The Movies
  • Kai from The List
  • Olive from Movie News First
  • Darren from the mOvie blog
  • Travis from The Movie Encyclopedia
  • Heather from Movie Mobsters
  • Wendy from The Movie Viewing Girl
  • Paul from Paragraph Film Reviews
  • Phil from Phil on Film
  • Faith from Ramblings of a Recessionista
  • Nick from Random Ramblings of a Demented Doorknob
  • Ross & Ross from Ross v Ross
  • Meaghan from Wild Celtic
  • Mike from You Talking to Me?
  • No. 31: “Fargo” (1996)

    “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.” ~~Marge Gunderson

    Writer Elbert Hubbard posited an interesting theory about the rather opposite problems of brilliance and nitwittedness: “Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped.” Watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s caper-gone-wrong/thriller/bloody comedy (blood-com?) “Fargo” is like watching Hubbard’s words come to life — funny, outlandish, kooky life. For “Fargo,” with few exceptions, is populated with the sort of numbskulls who could not find their nether regions with both hands and a miner’s helmet. Watching them try and fail makes for A-plus doofy comedy, but with a sinister and violent twist. 

    Chief among these morons is Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy), a shady, incompetent Minneapolis car salesman who’s hemorrhaging cash. He hatches a plot to get his hands on some green that he’s certain is foolproof (uh oh). Mostly Jerry just needs money, but there’s a small part of him that craves excitement and power; he does, after all, live under his rich father-in-law’s (Harve Presnell) thumb. Macy’s stammering anxiety is a boon to “Fargo,” since nobody plays a loser who wants to be cool quite as adeptly as he does. Thus, Jerry hires two local thugs, Carl (the eminently watchable Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare, by turns comic and ungodly creepy), to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd). In exchange, he’ll give these hoods a new car and half of the $80,000 ransom. But Jerry has plans for a double-cross of sorts that, according to Murphy’s Law and to Coen Law, he will not pull off. Guys who look and sound like William H. Macy never pull off such plots in movies.

    There are two things that poor, dopey Jerry hasn’t counted on. First and foremost is that the criminal’s he has hired are about as gifted in the art of crime perpetration as, say, the Three Stooges on a bad day. Carl is jittery and absolutely incapable of keeping his cool. (The film’s best throwaway knee-slapper: Buscemi lets loose with “Whoa, daddy!” when Gaear suddenly shoots a trooper in Brainerd, Minn.) Gaear affects an ominous stare and rarely talks, which gives him an air — totally erroneous, of course — of competence. The second thing that knocks Jerry for a loop is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, deserving of that Best Actress Oscar for her cheerful performance), Brainerd’s police chief. Although she, like everyone else in “Fargo,” sports that too-crazy-to-be-fake Minnesota dialect, saying things like “oh, yah” and “dontchaknow,” she’s no intellectual lightweight. Within minutes of finding the dead trooper in the snow, she’s accurately recreated the crime scene and starts the search for two criminals. McDormand, a veritable chameleon of an actress, plays up this rather astounding discrepancy to marvelous comic effect. The combination of the “aw, shucks” accent and her razor-sharp intellect is killer.

    In Coen fashion, the events in “Fargo” unfold in such crazy ways that it’s best not to pull too hard on any one thread. This film, a mooshed-up concoction of genres, contains that principle that underlies so many of Joel and Ethan’s films: The more power we think we wield over any set of circumstances, the less we really do. In “Fargo” this idea is played for laughs dark- and light-hearted, with director Joel Coen leaning heavily upon his strange native tongue to provide a stark contrast to the chilly white landscape (ably provided by Roger Deakins). The characters, too, offer more than enough color, with Macy’s wannabe kingpin serving up chuckles galore with his ineptitude (i.e., he wants to KO the kidnapping but can’t because he doesn’t have another contact number for Carl). Buscemi, doing his best Buscemi impression, and Stormare, undervalued as a comic actor, are a bloody-fun Felix/Oscar team. They’re like the blockheads on “World’s Dumbest Criminals,” only more cartoonish. McDormand and John Carroll Lynch as Marge’s doting husband are the only characters approaching anything halfway near “nuanced,” and even they are drawn in bold strokes.

    Still, if there were nuance, would we have zingers like “Say, Lou, didya hear the one about the guy who couldn’t afford personalized plates, so he went and changed his name to J3L2404?” Probably not, and that would be a tragedy. Darn tootin’.