(The title of this blog is a very bad pun from a very bad movie, please ignore.)
In my previous blog about wonderful small films, I left out some of my favorites. So here’s a few new ones for your delectation and delight. I recommend them on rainy or snowy Sunday nights when they haven’t started the new Downtown Abbey season (let alone the new Sherlock season) and your significant other (should you be so fortunate as to have one) is snoring or screaming that his team (her team) should have so won that game and the score (45-3) does not at all reflect the team’s talents. Put some popcorn in the microwave, pour yourself a favorite libation, and settle down on the sofa (or better still, in bed) and watch one or more of these (NOTE: this essay is filled with spoilers, so if you haven’t seen any one of these (and why haven’t you by this time?), you may want to watch first and read later):
First, and because I just watched it again, is Dirty Dancing. I can’t imagine how I came to forget this one in my previous blog about my favorite small films, because this one is just perfect. Set in the sixties at a time when the old-fashioned summer resorts in the Adirondacks were beginning to disappear (the last of them left is the Mohonk Mountain House and if you haven’t gone there, turn out the sofa cushions for all your spare change and GO, it’s fabulous, even if real expensive), this is a film about coming of age and about figuring out what’s really important in making your life your own life. It stars Patrick Swayze, perfectly cast as the pro dancer hired for the summer, Jennifer Grey (who really should not have had that nose job she later had and which she admits wasn’t her smartest career move), and Jerry Orbach, an actor/singer/dancer who never did a bad show. The story is simple, a young girl goes on vacation (under protest) with her parents to a summer resort in the Catskills (North Carolina subbed in the actual filming, which you don’t really need to know) and discovers that the staff is having a great deal more fun than the guests, dirty dancing to the fantastic rock music of the era. She discovers that Johnny Castle’s (the Patrick Swayze character) dancing partner has gotten “in trouble”. Yes, that kind of in trouble. So Baby (the character’s nickname) borrows money from her dad so that the girl can get an abortion. Unfortunately, the only time the abortion can happen is during a dance contest at a competing hotel that Castle has to take part in. So Baby has to learn the mambo really fast. They do the contest, but she can’t do the lift. Just too scared. Complications arise because the abortion was botched, Baby’s father (who is a doctor) helps the girl recover, but believes that Castle is the cause of the abortion being necessary (which he is not, it’s a nasty little weasel who’s working at the resort), and then Castle gets fired for robbery, at which point Baby has to admit right out loud that Castle could not have done that because they were together all night and nobody thinks they were dancing. The final scene is what we’re all waiting for, the one where Castle says “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” and they dance to “I Had the Time of My Life” and she does the lift and everything works out perfectly, including the weasel getting what’s coming to him. All that would be fine, it’s a great story, but what really fills your heart is the wonderful dance numbers, the montage sequence of Baby learning how to dance which is funny and charming, and the love story between the rootless man and the too rooted young woman. If you don’t cry at the end of this one, you may want to check your pulse.
The other Patrick Swayze movie to watch is, of course, Ghost. With Demi Moore being a dewily lovely and sad young widow and Whoopi Goldberg being a hysterically funny fake psychic who suddenly starts (to her considerable chagrin) channeling a real ghost– the ghost of Patrick Swayze, it’s about how hard it is to actually say I love you and how important it is. Among other delights, this small movie has probably the only genuinely sexy scene in the movies in which the conceit is that she’s throwing a pot on a potter’s wheel at the time, all to the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody”. Patrick Swayze died far too soon (as if there’s a good time for a person, whether or not he or she is a brilliant performer, to die), but these two movies show him at the top of his form as a tough man who could be and was incredibly tender. And man, could he dance.
While we’re on the subject of romantic movies, I didn’t include Casablanca in my earlier blog because it isn’t considered to be a “small” film, but instead plops itself in the top ten of any best movie list anybody cares to put together. But Casablanca is simply my favorite film. For others who love it, I would recommend getting the Aljean Harmetz book “The Usual Suspects” which details the making of the film while using those details to talk about wider implications of politics, filmmaking, refugees and the themes and memes of World War II. Casablanca is a film based on an unproduced play called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” in which the themes of refugees, of a man who “sticks his neck out for nobody” and a woman who broke his heart long ago were central. In the film, they form the rock upon which is built an edifice of the self-sacrifice necessary to win the war (Casablanca was released in 1942, just in time for the Allied invasion of North Africa, a nice little marketing tie-in, I have to admit). The triangle of Bogart-Bergman-Henreid is echoed by the huge triangle of war-love-sacrifice that a lot of people were wrestling with whether they, like the Americans at home to watch the film, were in the background and simply worrying about loved ones, or if they were on the front lines. The film is filled with great lines that are still funny, poignant and fresh today: “I’m shocked, shocked, I tell you, to discover that gambling is going on here. Your winnings, sir.” “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” “Here’s looking at you kid.” “I’m a drunkard. And that makes Rick a citizen of the world.” “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” “Round up the usual suspects.” And so many, many more. I watch this once a year (more often would be too self-indulgent, and this is, after all, a movie about not giving in to self-indulgence) and I cry every time. People need, I think, something larger than themselves to believe in and to work for, and this movie is, if it is anything, about those things that are worth fighting for and worth giving up something just as precious for. Watch it and love it.
There always has to be a Russell Crowe film in any of my listings of favorite films. This time I’m going out on a limb, just a bit, and suggesting 3:10 to Yuma in which he portrays with his usual genius a Very Bad Man (this is also this blog entry’s nod to the Western). It’s a remake of a Glenn Ford film and the plot is that the Pinkertons finally capture Ben Wade, who is the Very Bad Man, and they have to get him to the train (the 3:10 to Yuma) to get him to prison and out of the way of his gang, who are bent on freeing him. Into all this comes a young rancher, Dan Evans, veteran of the Civil War, who lost a leg in that war. He is being forced out by the big bugs around his neighborhood and his elder son despises him for cowardice. As played by Christian Bale, he is a man of conviction, morality, and desperation. He HAS to come up with the money it will take to pay for water until the rains come. The rest of the movie is the journey to Yuma. Ben Wade is indeed a Very Bad Man, and yet he comes across as the least vengeful, spiteful and nasty person in the film, except for Dan Evans, whose nobility gets frayed as time goes forward. By the end, the two actors provide a master acting class during several scenes in which they’re just talking about their lives and their beliefs (in Ben’s case, his more or less lack of any kind of belief). The last scene has Evans’ son realizing what his father meant all along and he decides NOT to kill Ben Wade. You can watch what this does to Ben Wade simply by looking at Russell Crowe’s remarkable eyes. The movie is about morality, yes, but it makes its point obliquely. The unswervingly moral man dies, but because of Dan Evans’ principles and his willingness to die for them, the Very Bad Man goes through a kind of redemption that is personal, that may not last, but that is completely real. The only problem I had with the film is that at the end, Wade, in his jail cell on the 3:10 to Yuma, whistles for his horse and you know he’s going to get away. This was, to me, superfluous — the point was already made earlier when Wade told Evans that he’d been jailed in Yuma before and gotten out with no trouble. That quibble having been quibbled, it’s a wonderful Western with terrific acting (including the secondary characters, a panoply of great character actors which features Peter Fonda in a deliciously evil turn as the chief Pinkerton man).
Speaking of Very Bad Men, let’s turn to a film about Very Good Men. The story of the men (and a few of the women) who fought for or against the Declaration of Independence was made into a nifty Broadway musical before Warner Brothers made it into a movie called 1776. The musical numbers fit the show so closely that there isn’t one that could be called a break-out, they’re just too specific to the plot. But the lines, the wit, the sense you get of men who are fighting for philosophical principles at the same time they’re fighting for politics, economics and personal liberty, and the acting and singing, all are simply topnotch. I cannot imagine this film being remade now because the actors that were hired for it fit their roles like their own skin. In fact, most of the people who were in the Broadway show were hired to play the same roles in the movie and that does not happen very often. William Daniels is of course superb as John Adams (“you’re obnoxious and disliked, you know that sir”), Ken Howard is dignified and tall as Thomas Jefferson, red-haired, calm and more interested in his new wife (Blythe Danner in a small role but oh so winsome) than in all of Congress’ shenanigans, Howard De Silva proves once again that sometimes one simply IS the role one plays with Franklin’s mellow wit and enjoyment of life’s pleasures (“not everybody’s from Boston, John”). So many more. And the moments: the dispatches from George Washington with, always, a drum roll before the Congressional clerk reads his signatures, the song “Mama, Look Sharp” sung by a very young boy acting as a courier about his horrific experiences at Concord, and the brilliant and searing “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” number by John Cullum which is a history lesson in brief about the slave trade: “hail, Charleston, hail Boston, who stinketh the most?”. There’s love, there’s mutual respect and affection (the scenes between John Adams and his wife Abigail (played by Virginia Vestoff who, sadly, died shortly after the film was finished) are taken almost without modification from the couple’s letters to each other over their long and loving marriage), there’s the tribute to the combatant who has lost his battle to remain with the mother country but whose respect for the men he fought is such that he promises to fight on the rebel side, there’s the huge and fateful compromise that allows the Declaration to be passed unanimously and there’s Franklin’s words, passed down to us from the time, that “if we do not hang together, we will most assuredly hang separately.” A super film you’ll get lost in, and the factual changes to make it more dramatic are mere nitpicks — the great sense of this grand thing that had never been tried before comes through and one is awestricken that the United States actually got started and even more awestricken that it’s still stumbling along as well as it is.
And, finally, for this iteration of favorite films, another small gem from Britain: Truly, Madly, Deeply, which is Alan Rickman at his wonderful best. Another ghost story, this one of a woman, played by Juliet Stevenson, who simply cannot get her life back on track after the death of her lover. In this film, Rickman portrays the dead lover who haunts her in a funny, charming and poignant manner, all for the express purpose of getting his love to start living again. It truly is funny and you truly will cry. And it is all about truly living and making the most of what you have left and using it to find what is coming up next for you.
So here’s a loverly weekend for you, filled with some of the sexiest men and best actors you could possibly want (and quite a few really good actresses if you, dear reader, are more inclined in that direction), with stories about love, sacrifice and redemption, great, lasting and sometimes funny lines and with themes that actually matter. Leave the strange new comedies that seem to be mostly about boys not growing up for another time. Go ahead, get lost in love and adventure with a really good movie, of which the above are merely suggestions.