For me, summer means time to watch movies and read books. Since we talked about books last week, here are some movies to watch between the blockbusters full of explosions, men in tights, and aliens on the big screens. It’s hard to choose, so I just put down the ones I’ve watched lately. Much love.
The Missouri Breaks
Arthur Penn's strange Western starring two giants—Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando. Watch Brando in his strange yet effective turn as a bounty hunter. Jack is great, but the role is a strange amalgam of villain and lover, so it’s hard to tell where our sympathies should lie—with wild, horny Jack or smooth, kooky Marlon. Nicholson's costume in this movie inspired Michael Fassbender's slave driver in 12 Years a Slave.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
This is a sad tale about good people and murder. The protagonist decides to make a movie about his friend after the friend is found shot dead in a parking lot, so that his unborn son might know who his father was. As the filming progresses, this bleak (but heartwarming) tale gets even bleaker. Gripping and strangely life-affirming.
Dogtown and Z-Boys
Simply the coolest look at the history of skateboarding, made expertly by one of the sport’s creators, Stacy Peralta. Sean Penn narrates and takes us back to the old days of the Southern California coast when the rules of the game were being written by a group of teenagers.
A Face in the Crowd
Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan, the writer and director behind On the Waterfront, teamed up again to make this engaging and still relevant portrait of a man’s rise to the top of Hollywood and how talent in one area can naturally segue into others, like politics. It is a scathing indictment as well as a beautifully crafted work of art.
Young Scorsese at his best. Any young male actor will know this movie like any young pop singer knows Thriller and Bad. It's still thrilling to see Scorsese and De Niro mix it up for the first time. De Niro as Johnny Boy gives a spunky, wise-guy performance with a kind of manic energy that is hard to find in any of his other intense heavies. Johnny Boy is a lovable meathead at the beginning, almost like Sean Penn’s Spicoli. With this film, Scorsese shows how a young talent with little money can turn material from his life in Little Italy into a mini epic of a bygone New York.
You can’t get enough of Scorsese and De Niro—especially their collaborations. Tarantino said that most people find this movie funny now, and that if you listened to an audience’s reactions without seeing what they were watching, you might think it is a comedy. I think this comes from our overfamiliarity with De Niro’s indelible Travis Bickle. Bickle is a psychopath for all of us, because he believes so hard. No matter if it’s love, political extremism, or the protection of a little girl—he wants something to change. For some reason, I always think of the tracking shot of the pimps in the diner—one in a black suit, one in a white suit. And of the Alka-Seltzer.
Criterion has released a version of Red River with new interviews with director Howard Hawks's protégé, Peter Bogdanovich, as well as some other film and western specialists. Here is John Wayne at his best. Here, his black heart isn’t motivated by a racist need to exterminate and avenge as it is in The Searchers. It is simply the product of exigencies of life on the trail—of being soldier, rancher, judge, and executioner all in one. Opposite him is Monty Clift at his most beautiful, before the crash. Not my favorite Clift performance, but it is nice to see him in a less extroverted role than in A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity. The mysterious energy is still there, but we can see that there is also a bit of a dude underneath, and it makes us like him in a different way. He doesn’t quite sink into the Western atmosphere like Wayne or Walter Brennan, but he doesn’t need to—he’s supposed to be a bit special, to stand out a bit from his companions, to have a little aura about him.
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Watch the Nicholson and Rafelson version. Shot by Sven Nykvist and adapted by David Mamet from the James M. Cain novel, this is a harsh and sexy take on the murder-prone lovers. Jessica Lange—following her turn in King Kong—exudes sex like a force of nature, and Jack imbues his usual caddishness with a touching level of earnestness. All the aforementioned talent notwithstanding, it’s a treat to be taken in such a well-constructed time machine back to the outskirts of Depression-era Los Angeles.
“Daddy wants to fuuuuuuuuuuuck.” Dennis Hopper’s Oscar-nominated comeback performance in this Lynch classic is worth the price of the download alone. Hopper had been all but banished from Hollywood after decades of being the self-indulgent madman artist living out fantasies of drugs, girls, and guns in his Taos, New Mexico, compound. Blue Velvet brought Hopper back for the third chapter of his career, clean off drugs but still able to channel the madness of his early life into his roles. The movie had a huge influence on David Foster Wallace, who said that watching it was a kind of epiphany while going to writing school in Arizona.