It is just four days into June as I write this, yet it seems as if the world’s been quarantined for about two years now. Even after COVID-19 infections level off (still a ways to go on that, methinks) and the police officers responsible for George Floyd’s death are brought to justice (again, still a ways to go, I think), we will continue to face an uncertain rest of the year. For one thing, hurricane season has already begun. For another thing, in April the government announced the existence of aliens, and I wouldn’t be surprised a whit if there was an actual landing. For yet another thing, the murder hornets are still on their way from the Pacific Northwest to the rest of the United States.
(GringoPotpourri note: I am both serious and joking in my comments about aliens and murder hornets. I mean really, what’s next?!)
At least there are streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime to pacify us. Movie theaters are closed, and sadly, I suspect that many of them will never open their doors again. The new golden age of television has given entertainment junkies much to binge watch – I recently finished season five of AMC’s “Better Call Saul,” and season three of Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” I look forward to the next season of Prime’s “Jack Ryan,” and may tackle HBO’s “Chernobyl” in the meantime.
That being said, I am much more of a movie geek than a TV geek; if you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you surely know that. There is good content to be found online (or in other formats, such as DVD and Blu-ray; I subscribe to both regular and DVD Netflix). Below, in no particular order, is a sampling of ten films that I’ve watched since the COVID quarantine began. Since a part of believes that things are opening up too quickly, and that new cases will spike as a result, I’m sure we’ll be in this for some time to come. If you’re at loss for something to watch, and have diverse tastes like I do, you may find something that appeals to you from the following selections. Enjoy!
Goodfellas (1990): What can be said about Martin Scorsese’s rollicking gangster movie, based on a true story and novelized in Nicholas Pileggi’s book “Wiseguy,” that hasn’t already been said? This is peak, mid-career Scorsese, a movie that the late Roger Ebert proclaimed the best film of the 90’s, and with the possible exception of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it may be the filmmaker’s most fun movie as well.
“Goodfellas” chronicles the rise (and fall, of course – there must always be that) of Henry Hill, a dirt-poor, half-Irish, half-Italian kid from Brooklyn who idolizes, and goes to work as an errand boy, the neighborhood capo “Paulie” Cicero (Paul Sorvino). Hill grows up to become a blue-eyed thief and con (played by Ray Liotta in the best performance of his career), and courts the wide-eyed Karen (Lorraine Bracco), whose Jewish parents disapprove of the relationship. Meanwhile, Henry and his buddies Jimmy the Gent (Robert De Niro), a mid-level, Irish-born mafioso, and Tommy DeVito (Oscar winner Joe Pesci), a hot-tempered murderer who never visits his mother, plan bigger and riskier heists, with infidelity, drug use, paranoia, and betrayal all eventually rearing their ugly heads.
What makes “Goodfellas” so good? Well, in addition to its master class of great performances, its rock-and-roll soundtrack, and its poetic displays of profanity and gunfire, I suppose it’s that more than any other mafia picture, including even “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas” makes you want to be a gangster. Who hasn’t, at least once, wanted to literally get away with murder, as Pesci’s DeVito does after being told, simply, to “go fuck himself” following a well-earned insult, by the short-lived Spider (a pre-“Sopranos” Michael Imperioli)? Who isn’t captivated by the bravura sequence in which Henry takes Karen to a glamorous nightclub by whisking her through a subterranean entrance and handing wads of cash to doormen and kitchen attendants simply to let them pass?
Unlike Roger Ebert, I don’t consider “Goodfellas” the best film on the 90’s; I might reserve that honor for “Schindler’s List,” or “Pulp Fiction,” or “The Shawshank Redemption,” or perhaps even “Boogie Nights,” which, as it happens, was highly influenced by “Goodfellas.” Still, Scorsese has seldom been better, and if “Goodfellas” isn’t the best film of the decade, it is at least Scorsese’s best film of the decade. Seen on: Netflix.
Can’t Hardly Wait (1998): Several rungs down the 1990’s quality ladder from “Goodfellas” but still boasting a great soundtrack, “Can’t Hardly Wait” was a last-night-of-high-school comedy in the style of “American Graffiti” and “Dazed and Confused.” Like those coming-of-age classics, “Can’t Hardly Wait” was packed from start to finish with music, including the title track by The Replacements, which I doubt any of the film’s characters had ever actually heard before, given their ages.
It is graduation day and the slightly-hip, slightly-forgettable Preston Meyers (a winning Ethan Embry) learns, on the eve of his planned trip to Boston for a writing workshop, that his longtime crush, Amanda Beckett (Jennifer Love Hewitt), the most popular girl in school due largely to the fact that she dated jock Mike Dexter (Peter Facinelli), is newly-single – cruelly dumped by Mike, who plans to sow his wild oats with what he imagines will be scores of experienced college women. So it is, at that night’s mega-house party, that Preston plans to deliver a love letter to Amanda, who, it would seem, doesn’t even know that he exists. Preston, Amanda, and Mike are just three of the characters; others include revenge-minded nerd William (Charlie Korsmo), and mismatched outcasts Denise (a scene-stealing Lauren Ambrose, soon to do better things in HBO’s “Six Feet Under”) and Kenny (Seth Green), the two of which find themselves trapped in a bathroom for the majority of the party.
Will Amanda eventually receive Preston’s letter? Does William discover his newfound cool-ness? Do Denise and Kenny find more in common than they once thought? Will the cops break up the party? While we’re at it, do bears shit in the woods?
Be prepared: Soundtrack aside, “Can’t Hardly Wait” has not aged well. At 45, I still enjoy this particular genre of films – perhaps because I was but a fraction as cool as any of the characters in such genre standards as “American Graffiti,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High, “Booksmart,” and even “Superbad.” That being said, an over-reliance on stale clichés keeps “Can’t Hardly Wait” from reaching the authenticity and freshness of any of the other comedies mentioned in this paragraph. Nevertheless, if you enjoy spotting future TV and film stars like Amber Benson, Donald Faison, Jamie Pressly, and Jason Segel – some of them in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances – you’ll want to check out “Can’t Hardly Wait.” And that soundtrack still rocks. Seen on: Netflix.
Double Impact (1991): Upon its release in 1991, the aptly-named “Double Impact” was perhaps the most high concept Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle at the time: he played twins, neither of whom knew that the other existed. The whole JCVD-playing-dual-roles-thing was tested again, later that decade with “Timecop” and “Maximum Risk,” but “Double Impact,” despite having less plot than either of those, is somehow more fun.
The film opens with the murder of an American businessman and his wife in Hong Kong. Their twin infant children survive the massacre but are separated. One, Alex, is raised in a Chinese orphanage and grows up with a sense of street smarts to go with his penchant for fisticuffs. The other, Chad, grows up in France but later opens a martial arts studio in LA with his adoptive uncle, Frank (the late, great Geoffrey Lewis). And hence the French accent for Chad; Alex’s identical accent is never explained.
Frank, who knows what really happened, gets wind that Alex is in trouble and decides it is time for the long-lost brothers to meet. Violence predictably erupts, as do a few instances of mistaken identity, when the brothers meet the gangsters responsible for their parents’ murders, along with the Mob’s chief enforcer, Moon (Bolo Yeung, a familiar face to fans of JCVD’s 1988 film “Bloodsport”).
To be clear: This is not high art. The acting is terrible, and the gangsters’ reason for dispatching Chad and Alex’s parents early in the film is thin at best. Furthermore, the visual effects used to show both brothers on screen at once is hopelessly dated. Still, the mistaken identity genre is a fun one, and there is one inspired sequence: Chad sets out to rescue Alex’s girlfriend Danielle (Alonna Shaw) while Alex is detained, and as Chad and Danielle quietly ferry back to their island hideout, an increasingly-drunken Alex imagines his brother and Danielle having sex. Seen on: Amazon Prime.
Clue (1985): I wish I was old enough to have seen this film when it was first released in theaters. Improbably based on the Parker Bros. board game of the same name, “Clue” featured three possible endings. I have read that audiences would look up the showtimes in their local paper, and next to each time there would be an A, B, or C that would indicate which ending that particular showing featured. Alas, the gimmick didn’t produce the box office windfall that Paramount Pictures had hoped for, and the film actually lost money.
The movie features all of the characters from the board game, portrayed by an eclectic cast: Martin Mull as Colonel Mustard, Lesley Ann Warren as Ms. Scarlet, Christopher Lloyd as Professor Plum, Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White, Michael McKean as Mr. Green, and a scene-stealing Eileen Brennan as Mrs. Peacock. Like a true mystery, each character is given interesting backgrounds; Mr. Green, for example, works for the State Department, while Ms. Scarlet runs a high-priced Washington, DC escort service. Each is summoned to a spooky, hilltop mansion (complete with secret passageways) for dinner and drinks, and wouldn’t you know it, their mysterious host, Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving), drops dead not long after blackmailing each of his guests.
Who did it? Was it Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the candlestick? Ms. Scarlet in the Library with the lead pipe? Or are they all guilty? The film – a slapstick comedy instead of the dark thriller than some audiences may have expected – doesn’t disappoint in its answers (all three of them!) – and features plenty of pratfalls, double entendres, and memorable lines. My favorite exchange involves a door-to-door Bible salesman confronting an exasperated Mrs. Peacock: “But your souls are in danger.” “Our lives are in danger, ya beatnik!” And who can forget Mrs. White, whose desperation has become the film’s most quotable line: “Flames – f-flames – on the side of my face.” Ah, the legendary Madeline Kahn, gone way too soon.
Some critics didn’t get it. I wish that my favorite critic, the aforementioned Roger Ebert, had gotten a chance to reevaluate “Clue” before his unfortunate passing; the legendary Chicago Sun-Times reporter was famous for reassessing films like “The Godfather Part II” that he had originally missed the marked on. That being said, time has been kind, and “Clue” is now something of a cult classic. Perhaps it is all owed to Tim Curry, who I have somehow failed to mention until now. Curry plays a character not featured in the board game: Wadsworth the Butler, doing the bidding of Mr. Boddy but equally stumped by who the killer could be. Like “The Rocky Horror Picture” before and “Stephen King’s It” after, Curry’s take on the material somehow elevates it to a whole ‘nother level; “Clue” would be less of a movie without him in it. Seen on: Amazon Prime.
Barry Lyndon (1975): With apologies to Martin Scorsese, who has two movies featured on this list, has there ever been a better filmmaker than Stanley Kubrick? The reclusive auteur, who died in 1999 during the editing of “Eyes Wide Shut,” is said to have hated the Hollywood studio system, and a film of his that many critics proclaimed one of the best movies of the early 1960’s, “Spartacus,” won four Oscars but today feels more mainstream than any of the director’s other films – like a movie than any talented director could make. Afterwards, Kubrick insisted on final cut, and with the exception of some controversial, posthumous editing to appease the MPAA for the orgy sequence in “Eyes Wide Shut,” he got his wish.
The only other Kubrick film to win four Oscars was “Barry Lyndon,” released with great buzz but disappointing box office returns. The movie’s Oscar wins were all in technical categories, and it was up against some tough competition that year in the form of “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Jaws,” “Nashville,” and eventual winner “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” All five films are considered classics today, and interestingly enough, “Barry Lyndon” arguably holds up the best.
The film is a loose adaptation of the William Makepeace Thackeray novel “The Luck of Barry Lyndon,” written 131 years earlier! The story finds our protagonist, Redmond Barry, yearning for Irish nobility and falling afoul of royals, robbers, rival suitors, Prussians, and duelists during the Seven Years War. Something of a less-conscionable Forrest Gump, Barry wanders in and out of history through a combination of dumb luck and fate. But ultimately a cold epic of one man’s rise and fall, this doesn’t have “Gump’s” saccharine ending, and features a soundtrack of classical music, not of 60’s and 70’s pop music ditties.
Today, “Barry Lyndon” is hailed as a classic. If it isn’t mentioned with the same reverence as, say, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange,” or “The Shining,” that is likely because many viewers may be put off by its 184-minute running time, or cringe at the thought of casting “Love Story” sex symbol Ryan O’Neal as an 18th-century Irishman. But then, none of those other films were short by any means, and Kubrick has always been unafraid to cast unconventionally. Still, even if “Barry Lyndon” will seldom be considered by anyone to be Kubrick’s most exciting film, it is his best-looking one. The indoor and outdoor vistas – rolling Irish meadows and lavish Baroque palaces – are like something you would see on a canvas at London’s National Gallery, and the cinematography, by longtime Kubrick collaborator John Alcott, combines natural and discreet side lighting to masterful effect. Seen on: DVD Netflix.
The Matrix (1999): Another movie to win four Oscars, though quite different from “Barry Lyndon,” was “The Matrix.” I re-watched it for the first time in perhaps ten years, and it has aged well – almost as well as star Keanu Reeves himself.
If you haven’t seen the film, know that it’s about a hacker (Reeves) code-named Neo, who believes that if you follow the white rabbit through the looking glass, the truth of our existence can be found in a darker, bizarro world that would make Lewis Carroll proud. Neo gets recruited by the legendary Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who shows Neo that our surface reality is actually a computer-manufactured alternate reality created by the Matrix, a sentient, A.I. hive mind of sorts. The Matrix wishes to silence any who crack the code, and dispatches a hit squad of suit-wearing, T-1000-like assassins, led by the sinister Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), to travel through the phone lines across worlds and snuff out Neo, Morpheus and their crew, including Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), with whom Neo finds himself smitten. Meanwhile, Morpheus believes Neo is the One who can bring balance to the Force – er, um, something – despite Neo’s own doubts.
I didn’t quite know what to make of the film when I first watched it in the summer of ’99. The visual effects – surely the most revolutionary since those used in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” eight years earlier – were astonishing. And I enjoyed seeing Reeves in his first action film since “Point Break” and “Speed.” And yeah, Trinity was easy on the eyes. But was Laurence Fishburne, donning rimless shades and a floor-length leather jacket, really as cool as the filmmakers wanted us to believe? Was the virtual reality-led martial arts training bout between Morpheus and Neo really the be-all, end-all of jaw-dropping, on-screen wire work?
As it turns out, watching this again 21 years after its release, the answer is “yes.” The FX artistry is still ahead of its time, and that jujitsu sequence only paved the way for Asian exports like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “House of Flying Daggers” to play so well to western audiences the following decade. Watching the movie today, Reeves and Fishburne sparring is, oddly, the highlight of the film, moreso than the bullet time rooftop shootout or the subway battle between Neo and Agent Smith. I still could do without the cheesy “Superman” ending, though. Seen on: Blu-ray.
There Will Be Blood (2007): Commerce vs. religion is the dominating theme of this masterful 2007 epic from “Boogie Nights” writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. The auteur set three films in a row in the San Fernando Valley, and this time expanded his canvas and stepped further back in time, loosely adapting Upton Sinclair’s 1926 industry tell-all “Oil!” into a film that is part “Giant” and part “Citizen Kane.”
The miserable, Charles Foster Kane-esque character this time is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a pre-WWI oilman who heads to Central California upon hearing that land can be bought cheap – land beneath which “a river of oil” supposedly flows. With adopted son H.W. in tow, Plainview woos the locals with plans of building a school, a road, and a church – the latter of which was built largely to appease local preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), whom Plainview believes to be a false prophet.
The battle of wills between Plainview and Eli is heightened first, by an oil rigging accident, and second, by the arrival of a mysterious figure (Kevin J. O’Connor) from Plainview’s past. As captured by Oscar-winner cinematographer Robert Elswit, and accentuated by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s moody score, Plainview’s Little Boston, California is a parsed and sinister place, where greed and opportunism run rampant and where stubbornness defines who a person is.
Though lacking the Scorsese-meets-Tarantino pacing of “Boogie Nights” and the sheer audaciousness of “Magnolia,” “There Will Be Blood” may be P.T. Anderson’s best film. It lingers longer in memory than that year’s eventual Best Picture Oscar winner, “No Country for Old Men,” and it doesn’t pander to audiences by forcing in female characters for the sake of box office receipts when the film is all about the world of men. And Day-Lewis, who deservedly won his second Best Actor Oscar, carves exquisite ham with lines like “I have a competition in me” and “I drink your milkshake,” proving that he is the greatest actor alive today. Seen on: Netflix.
Mississippi Burning (1988): In 1964, three Civil Rights workers, one of them black, were brutally murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen while passing through Mississippi. Their disappearance brought a posse of FBI agents into a small southern town where restaurants were segregated and where racism simmered just beneath the surface. The arrival of the Feds was not well-received, but ultimately brought to light acts of violence and murder that would surely have gone unpunished were it not for the diligence of the J. Edgars.
The subject material seemed right for a filmmaker who was unafraid to shine a tough light. Enter Alan Parker, whose harrowing “Midnight Express,” from 1978, was a brutal, unsubtle minor classic. “Mississippi Burning” is just as brutal, and even less subtle, and is anchored by a pair of fantastic performances from Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe.
Alan Ward (Dafoe) is the senior FBI agent in charge, a “Kennedy boy” who charges into town, leveling accusations at the racist sheriff and threatening to draft Naval recruits to drag the nearby swamps in search of bodies he is certain are there. Rupert Anderson (Hackman), on the other hand, grew up in a nearby Mississippi county, and knows that a different approach is needed. He sweet talks a local hairdresser (Frances McDormand) and attends the local black church services, but as a parishioner, not as a lawman. Little by little, he earns Ward’s respect (and ours – it’s a brilliant performance by Hackman, seminal stuff by the four-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner).
As I said before, “Mississippi Burning” isn’t a subtle film. The music score, by Randy Edelman, consists of just a single refrain, ominous and booming, that suggests violence is about to break out at any moment, even when the scene in question is one of triumph, not tragedy. The violence itself, a series of church burnings, beatings, lynchings, and Molotov cocktail attacks, is constant, and can wear down the unprepared viewer. Though the names of the characters and the town in which they lived have been changed, the recent murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis reminds me that racism is still very much alive, making the movie more relevant than ever. Check it out. Seen on: Amazon Prime.
Zombieland: Double Tap (2019): The Twinkie references are fewer but the laughs are just as frequent as the original in this fun, if unnecessary, sequel. Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), our survivors from the first film, are still weathering out the zombie apocalypse, and have formed a dysfunctional family of sorts, several years on.
When the film opens, they are living in semi-luxury at the otherwise-deserted White House, the lawn outside of which has grown over with weeds. Tallahassee still acts as a man-child father figure of sorts, while Columbus and Wichita stumble with their feelings for each other, which leaves Little Rock as a forgotten sort of third wheel. A botched marriage proposal and dreams of visiting Graceland sends the group on the road again, men-against-women once more. (Bleed that formula dry!)
Sequels traditionally expand the cast, and this one is no exception. On their journey, our protagonists meet a pair dopplegängers for Tallahassee and Columbus (humorously played by Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch), a ditzy distraction for Columbus (a very funny Zoe Deutch), a doe-eyed singer boyfriend for Little Rock (Avan Jogia), and a kindred spirit and possible flame for Tallahassee (Rosario Dawson). But is there truth to rumors of a new strain of supercharged zombie?
Is “Double Tap” as funny as the original “Zombieland?” Meh. A good friend’s one-sentence review was, simply, “If you liked the original, you’ll like this one.” Seems accurate. I think the first film had a better beginning, but this one has a better ending. And the dopplegänger stuff is clever. And yes, there is another glorious Bill Murray cameo, so be sure to sit through the end credits. Seen on: Amazon Prime.
Taxi Driver (1976):
When the Oscar nominations were announced for 1976 films in early ’77, “Taxi Driver” was one of five movies nominated for Best Picture. Its competition was stiff, and included “All the President’s Men,” “Network,” and “Rocky.” All four movies are regularly included on greatest-of-all-time lists, and they each hold up well. (The fifth Best Picture slot, if you are wondering, went to the Woody Guthrie biopic “Bound for Glory,” which I admit that I have not seen.)
Martin Scorsese fan that I am, my favorite film of the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph is “Taxi Driver.” It was the director’s most experimental film at that point, a true mood piece, with a jazzy score (by the late Bernard Herrmann), hypnotic camerawork (by Michael Chapman), a bleak script (by Paul Shrader), and a lead performance (by Robert De Niro) that is one of the most imitated in film history. (Did you know that the “You talkin’ to me?” monologue was made up on the spot by the legendary actor?)
De Niro famously plays Travis Bickle, a pill-popping, coffee-swilling, night shift NYC cab driver and Vietnam veteran who slowly goes insane from night after night of exposure to Manhattan’s pre-Giuliani sleaze. Rejection by a comely political campaign worker (Cybill Shepherd) doesn’t help matters. The turning point, or chance for redemption, perhaps (we never learn much about what horrors Bickle may have experienced in Vietnam), comes after a series of run-ins with 13-year prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster, who earned her first Oscar nomination here), wise beyond her years but trapped by an abusive lover/pimp (Scorsese regular Harvey Keitel).
As he did with “Goodfellas” in the 1990’s, Roger Ebert proclaimed “Taxi Driver” the best film of its decade. Again, he may have been a bit too generous – I’m thinking of “The Godfather,” or “Annie Hall,” or “The Exorcist,” to name just a few superior candidates – but the film’s merits are many. And the ending, while violent, provokes endless discussion. Is Bickle a hero or a madman? Is the recovery scene, where we see a newspaper article in his apartment announcing his release from the hospital, and hear a letter read to him by Iris’s grateful parents, reality or delusion? I still don’t know. Do you? Seen on: Netflix.
What have you been watching during quarantine, Loyal Reader? Leave a comment below and let us know…and stay healthy and safe!