Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Cool Hand Luke

“Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”

Cool Hand Luke is an American film by all accounts. It boasts a rebellious, masculine spirit that seems to triumph against convention. It’s a loose ensemble piece with a mysterious Christ figure at its helm. It reminded me of both The Shawshank Redemption and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, both films about imprisonment and the mental decay it can cause in a man. Despite the 4:3 aspect ratio on which I was forced to watch the movie, I enjoyed it quite a bit, particularly its cinematic innovations coupled with its barrels-of-fun populist appeal.

Luke (Paul Newman) is sentenced to two years in a chain gang prison for cutting the heads off parking meters on a bored, drunken evening. In prison, he develops a friendship with tough guy Dragline (George Kennedy) after refusing to back down from a boxing match. In turn, he earns the admiration of the entire prison, and they begin to view him as a hero, particularly when Luke rebels against the administration of the prison and ultimately attempts to escape.

Similar to The Graduate, which came out the same year, this movies lulls you into a familiarity of watching a 1960s movie at times, but then it strikes you with beautiful cinematography and storytelling decisions that seem well ahead of its time. The depiction of the prison warden comes to mind: his silent but menacing presence with destructive potential hidden beneath his sunglasses. There’s also the “coming together” scenes like the egg-eating contest that are photographed with such delight that you forget you’re watching a prison movie.

There’s a lot to love about Cool Hand Luke, and I can’t get behind it as a masterpiece, but I was thoroughly entertained without much else to say. It’s a cleverly arranged tale of dignity, friendship, and lots of other big movie values. I think this duality is what interested me the most: its conventional appeal to people like my Dad while also boasting cutting edge formal elements with its cinematography at the forefront.

I really appreciate the careful construction of Cool Hand Luke, and if I’ve learned anything from it, it’s that movies are meant to be watched in widescreen format like God intended.


Films Left to Watch: 846

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Roger & Me (1989)

Roger & Me

“Some people just don’t like to celebrate human tragedy while on vacation.”

I think a lot of Michael Moore’s charm has faded over the years, even among those who agree with his views. His gonzo style can be off putting, and I think this is apparent in all his movies, even the ones that don’t go as far politically as Fahrenheit 9/11. His first movie, Roger and Me, isn’t exempt either. But with just the right tone and a really neat style, I still really enjoyed this movie, and I think it was a great start for a now very controversial filmmaker.

Flint, Michigan is the focus of the film, particularly the town’s reliance on the General Motors plant for employment. Moore grew up in Flint and shares some neat memories and reflections on the town’s relationship with GM, and he chronicles the rise and fall of one of the biggest losers of big business practices. He attempts to track down the elusive GM President Roger B. Smith, inviting him to come to Flint and meet the people affected by his decisions. It’s a dark, witty, fascinating look at a town’s complete devotion a single business that seems to care nothing for the town in return.

I found it interesting how Moore personalizes the film while also keeping a comedic sort of distance. You get to see what fascinated Moore as a child growing up in a city essentially owned by General Motors, but Moore also portrays himself as a bit of an outsider: more interested in media than manufacturing. His humor is as dry and charming as it’s ever been, and he proves himself a great storyteller, weaving us through the highs and lows of this American tragedy.

I think the pushy attitude Moore brings to his movies can really make them stand out, and it can often be hard to root for him. He has a sense of entitlement when trying to get in contact with Roger Smith, and while his cause is just, there’s something not quite right about his actions. I’m all for civil disobedience and dangerous pursuit of the truth, but Moore never gives Smith a reason to actually be interviewed. He makes himself a nuisance to General Motors, storming into their buildings with a camera crew and a nonchalant attitude, instead of coming from a courteous journalistic approach that I’m not entirely convinced he pursued to completion.

I was amused, however, by Roger & Me. It also made my heart sink for Flint, Michigan, particularly due to their even grander tragedy in the recent water crisis. On the whole, though, I think Michael Moore has done a lot of great work for documentary film as a genre, and when his focus is in the right direction, he makes movies that are both informative and captivating without being a jerk about it.


Films Left to Watch: 847

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Paris, Texas (1984)

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“And for the first time, he wished he were far away. Lost in a deep, vast country where nobody knew him. Somewhere without language or streets. He dreamed about this place without knowing its name.”

It’s peculiar that I would have two transformative film experiences in such a short span of time, but I found myself rushing to IMDB to solidify for myself that both Seven Samurai and Paris, Texas would be among my new favorite movies. The former was a triumph, a mystery of scaled storytelling that left me ripe with excitement. The latter is perhaps the most haunting movie I’ve ever seen.

Through a beautifully barren American landscape stumbles Travis (Harry Dean Stanton). He is a drifter and has been for several years, when he suddenly finds his way back into the lives of his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) and 10 year old son (Hunter Carson). At first amnesiac but slowly regaining his memories, Travis must face the actions of his past and attempt to forge a path for his future and how it relates to those closest to him.

Harry Dean Stanton brings his undoubtedly finest performance, but I was most entranced by Nastassja Kinski. I speak often about those moments when I forget everything I know about film and become transfixed by a scene, and in this movie, it was just about any time Kinski was on screen. Her polite, familiar demeanor gives way to a broken thousand-yard stare that would make Kubrick proud. It’s stuck with me since the moment the film ended, and it conveys the horrors of good realism in a way that I’ve never seen a movie pull off before now.

This ties into another crucial piece of the brilliance of Paris, Texas, the screenplay from playwright Sam Shepard that feels, well, like a play. The landscapes are beautiful, and the movie deserves deep praise and analysis for its photography, but the words always come first. Characters take their time when they speak in a wise but somber way that you find in great American theatre. Motivations aren’t easy to pin down, and we don’t find get Travis’s backstory until near the end of the movie. Paris, Texas isn’t about turns of plot or spectacular occurrences. It works, as theatre does, on a more intimate level to deliver moments of beauty in the closest thing that the arts can present as real people with real struggles.

The Criterion website, from which I draw 100 percent of my knowledge and opinions, claims that Paris, Texas is “a powerful statement on codes of masculinity and the myth of the American family,” which I also find fascinating. Harry Dean Stanton’s final speech indicates the fleeting, near-impossible nature of the conventional family unit as people grow and change. While this unraveling isn’t revealed until the climax of the film, it seems to loom over every scene, and I look forward to watching the movie again for this reason. Even in the numerous moments of joy and connection between Travis and his family, a sense of despair seems to prevail, as if these successes are only temporary.

The movie is a masterfully written work of cinematic brilliance, and I believe this is due to its inherent theatricality. Director Wim Wenders conveys in an interview that his desire was to create a truly American film, and I think he does so in a subtle, uncomfortable way that comes out beautifully resonant by the time the credits roll. It left me deeply affected, and I already hold it as a personal treasure that I am sure to revisit again and again.


Films Left to Watch: 848

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Toy Story 3 (2010)

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“When the kids get old, new ones come in. When they get old, new ones replace them. You’ll never be outgrown, or neglected. Never abandoned or forgotten. No owners means no heartbreak!”

I wonder how they’re going to pull off Toy Story 4, because one thing that’s great about the original trilogy is the thematic arc and how the story creates a sort of cycle: toys being played with, then toys not being played with, then back to toys being played with. Maybe it will restart and Toy Story 4 will feature a new toy named Luzz Bightyear who doesn’t realize he’s a toy. Anyway, Toy Story 3 is a good movie.

The movie is easily the most disheartening of the three, with Andy’s collection of toys fearing they will be dropped in the trash as Andy moves off to college. When they find an alternative, they take it: a day care center where toys receive lots of care and attention. It’s not all fun and games, however, as the toy “in charge” of Sunnyside Daycare is a ruthless manipulator named Lots-o (Ned Beatty). It’s up to Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and the rest of the gang to take down Lots-o and find a place where they can be happy in these uncertain times.

Pixar upholds the tradition of starting the Toy Story movies with some big set piece. In this case, it’s a zany, wildly entertaining showdown of all the toys in a Wild West heist scenario. It serves as a fun reminder of the importance of play and carries the toys for the rest of the film as they continue to chase after these fond memories of playtime. Also, though, it shows how far Pixar has raised the bar in ten years. Every toy maintains its look, but they all have incredible new details that give you a sense of awe and nostalgia about how awesome these characters were and how the movie might take them on some fun new adventure.

I like the dynamic of the movie: one group of toys entering a much larger setting where they have to take down the leader. It feels like a Western at times, and I’m glad they didn’t rely on old plot points too much. Lots-o is a fun villain with great voice work from Ned Beatty, and he serves as a powerful thematic foil to that of the toys. It’s textbook storytelling to have the villain give a convincing but flawed moral argument that has everyone convinced until someone starts poking holes in it, and Lots-o’s “no owners, no heartbreak” philosophy is a smart way to escalate the themes of the first two movies even further.

I’m more and more amazed at every Toy Story installment at how Pixar juggles so many characters, and Toy Story 3 more than doubles the number of important characters flawlessly. Complex characters (Woody, Buzz, Lots-o) are given appropriate screen time, and the comic characters we’ve come to love (Mr. Potato Head, Rex, Barbie, etc.) are allowed to have their zingers while also functioning as the mob that the big players are trying to win over. It’s a tricky challenge, but the movie works, and I just really admire how Pixar never shies away from a storytelling challenge like this one.

These movies are genuine Pixar classics. Even if there are better Pixar movies in my opinion, I think a book like the 1001 Movies would be wise to include the trilogy as an example of Pixar’s fine progression over the years and to indicate the incredible care being put into some children’s movies. I’m glad I got to revisit these wonderful stories, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time.


Films Left to Watch: 849

(I’m restructuring how I do this counter. There are 1007 movies because of trilogies counted as one entry, so I’m just gonna keep track of 1007 minus how many movies are on my “Complete List” page. Should be easier and more accurate this way moving forward rather than worrying about counting trilogies as one.)

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A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

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“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.”

I was so impressed with Scream that I decided to follow it up with Wes Craven’s most acclaimed movie. Nightmare on Elm Street has always been clumped with a handful of other movies as one of the classics, one of the horror movies that “defined a genre” or “really gets it right.” While I think those things are true, I think it also helped me gain some perspective on slasher or nightmare horror and appreciate how far we’ve come, while also acknowledging the really cool movies that helped us get there. Even if they’re a little cheesy.

Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is a serial killer (and burn victim) that can enter the dreams of his victims, causing them pain that bleeds through to the real world. His latest target is Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), a pure-hearted final girl who must uncover and exploit Freddy’s weaknesses to put an end to his ruthless pursuit of her dreams.

The villain is the clear centerpiece of a movie like this one, and Freddy Krueger serves as a fittingly twisted antagonist for this first film of the franchise. As I hinted, I think he doesn’t hold up so well today, and his appearance and catchphrases sometimes paint him as a bland sort of nightmare instead of a complex foe. Regardless, though, Craven sprinkles him throughout the film masterfully, jumping into the nightmare from the get-go with a satisfying series of kills rising to a fitting climax, although it’s rather familiar in 2018.

While I think Craven has made smarter movies, I think Nightmare works best when it gets actual nightmares just right. There’s a familiarity to Krueger’s attacks, as if we’ve seen this villain in our own nightmares. Details like Nancy’s feet being stuck in goop as she runs up the stairs or being disoriented as Krueger appears from different directions ring really true to how our own dreams play out, demonstrating that Craven has gone beyond the standard scare sequences. The “what happens in dreams happens in real life” gimmick actually grew on me as the movie went on, and it’s a fun phenomenon that makes you curious as to how this Freddy nightmare stuff actually works and how he got his powers to begin with.

Nightmare on Elm Street is a really fun addition to Wes Craven’s canon, although it’s far from his best movie. Regardless, Craven proves once again his mastery of horrific creativity with this beautifully paced work of nightmares.


Films Left to Watch: 851

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Seven Samurai (1954)

seven samurai

“Listen, I’m not a man with any special skill, but I’ve had plenty of experience in battles; losing battles, all of them. In short, that’s all I am.”

I think a great movie should leave me with a lot to say, but I often find that my favorite movies leave me speechless. Nonetheless, I find myself grinning from ear to ear. Such is the case with Seven Samurai, a movie that really trampled on the more focused, personal films I’ve been seeking out lately. I knew this movie would be an epic, but my lack of attention given to Kurosawa-type movies and the breathtaking storytelling driving this film really hit me in a surprising way, and I had an absolute blast with Seven Samurai.

A poor farming community is on the brink of extinction, recently devastated by the pillaging of a nearby group of bandits who plan to strike again for their latest crop. In desperation, the farmers seek out a group of samurai to protect them from the bandits. The first act of the film concerns the seeking out, testing, convincing, and uniting of these samurai for a cause that will yield no glory. The second act is a strategically fought battle between the samurai and the bandits, culminating in a bloody showdown for the future of the village.

I’ve always been wary of longer run times, but this movie was easily the briskest 3+ hour movie I’ve ever seen, and it made me want to watch another Kurosawa film right away. The cut to intermission was probably the most striking bit in the entire film, and I found myself marinating in the first act far more than I expected. Kurosawa builds an epic not with set pieces but with a sense of community, and it nestles you into an experience that understands what scale actually means: substance over stuffing. Seven Samurai reminded me of a fine Netflix series, rounding out different characters and scenarios for the purpose of a greater thematic whole.

I believe a great film should have something to say, but Kurosawa seems to glide past theme and move straight into the “human experience” level of depth. There’s romance, philosophy, action, friendship, and many other plot pieces that only feel like an extension of a musing on the human experience. Everything in the story serves this idea, particularly its characters. The wise and aging Kembei is the tragic hero who seems ready for death, only to watch so many brave, younger men die in the same pursuit. Kikuchiyo is his younger, hot-headed foil who brings humor and courage in a way that no longer resonates with Kembei and the other more elitist samurai.

I think it might be my lack of experience with Kurosawa and Japense cinema, but there was a freshness to my viewing – a feeling like when I watched movies as a kid. I hear a lot of people say that they don’t want to study films because they “don’t want to hate movies” and still want the feel the magic of it all. I think this is valid, but my experience with Seven Samurai re-affirms that we can keep that magic present if we continue to challenge and indulge ourselves in cinema we’ve never seen before. I felt overjoyed with the movie in ways I can’t describe, and this sounds cliché but it speaks to how much I have to learn and the power of cinematic techniques in the hand of someone who understands their effect. If I saw Seven Samurai a few more times along with other Kurosawa movies, I could probably crack a few codes and piece together formal techniques, but I’ll never forget this viewing and the surprise and sheer delight of being in the dark in a way that any movie at my local theater won’t provide right now (but did when I was a kid).

Seven Samurai is worth more substantive study than I could provide right now, and that study has surely been done to death given its Holy Grail status to a lot of cinephiles and its prominent influence, so I’ll say I’m happy I saw it. I’ll say I feel inspired to see more Japanese cinema but also just to see more cinema. I’ve been watching a lot of mainstream horror this month, and for lack of a less pretentious phrase, I get conventional American horror. I didn’t get Seven Samurai, but I hope to get it soon. And I hope to discover movies I didn’t know existed that make me feel the same sense of awe and wonder about film as an art, and I hope to get those movies too. And I hope to repeat that process over and over until I die with a blade in my hand.


Films Left to Watch: 852

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Freaks (1932)

Freaks

“You laughed at them, shuddered at them. And, yet, but for the accident of birth, you might be one as they are. They did not ask to be brought into the world. But, into the world they came. Their code is a law unto themselves: offend one and you offend them all.”

Freaks is a strange Pre-Code horror movie that defies a lot of what you’d expect from a 30s horror movie or really any horror movie. Or really any movie. It’s a surprisingly tame feature with a disturbing ending cranking the film straight to eleven in its last five minutes. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding Freaks, particularly the scenes that were apparently chopped off and never seen again for fear of unsettling audiences. The film we ended up with, although only about an hour, is still a fun movie with a lot of neat choices to chew on.

The movie concerns a troupe of circus performers with physical deformities, portrayed by actors with the same conditions. There are a few subplots, but the main concern of the movie is Hans (Harry Earles), a dwarf performer who is engaged to Frieda (Daisy Earles) but is bewitched by the beautiful Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who is only after Hans’s money. At the climax of the film, when Cleopatra’s sinister nature comes to light, the “freaks” band together to take revenge on the “normal” performers who have mistreated and mocked them.

There’s really not any horror until the final act of the film, which leaves the majority of the movie as a strange collection of slice-of-life cinema depicting the lives of the deformed performers. There’s a lot of heart to these scenes, and I think the film has the best of intentions in its depiction of the titular performers. Great horror has often been a tool for minority groups to reclaim power through depiction and through telling their stories, and I think Freaks gets a lot of that across, even if the performers are often just played for spectacle.

I’m fascinated by the chopped footage that reduced the movie to such a meager run time. I can only assume a lot of content had to be cut and that a huge chunk of the movie was devoted to horror, because we’re left with a lot of first act material that a horror movie would typically just use to set up thrills. The pacing is definitely awkward, but I actually think it’s fun in a twisted sort of way, as if the film is playing with expectations for an entire hour before finally delivering. And when it delivers, dealing just desserts to the movie’s villain, it feels oh so satisfying.

Freaks is a fun piece of horror history, and you can definitely feel the influence of Tod Browning in the bits we’re still allowed to enjoy. I’d love to see the original cut someday, but it’s been destroyed to my understanding, so I guess we’ll just have to imagine.


Films Left to Watch: 853

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