Movie suggestions for smart kids (Part i)
· Godfather & Godfather II – These films, in my opinion, are near perfect. They have engaging characters, taut plots, moral lessons, socio-economic commentaries, immigrant experience issues, psychological core issues, and much, much more. Also, Coppola’s use of symbolic imagery is amazing. The core of the movies, however, is the development of Michael Corleone. Who he is, who he wants to be, and who he ends up being seem paradoxical given that this man has so much power and control. It reminds me of the lines that Hamlet writes for his play within a play:
Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown:
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.
WARNING: DO NOT WATCH GODFATHER III – I wish someone had warned me.
· Apocalypse Now – When the provenance of your film lies in the structure, characters, images, symbols, and themes of Heart of Darkness, well, you’ve got a good start. Coppola expertly weaves sight and sound imagery in this movie to achieve that “dream quality” narrative effect that Marlow talks about in the novel. When I first saw the movie as a 20-year-old watching Willard follow in Kurtz’s footsteps into the heart of the jungle, it illuminated the text for me. It was like I finally understood the novel right after watching the movie. If a movie can help you better understand a book, then it must have been done right! One of my favorite scenes is when they reach the Do Lung Bridge and Willard is with a group of African American soldiers. So much to analyze in terms of race, socio-economics, geo-politics, and the very nature of power!
· Full Metal Jacket – While we’re on the subject of Vietnam, let’s take a look at Stanley Kubrick’s dialectic treatment of the war. The first half of the movie deals with how you turn young men into killing machines while the second part delves into the practical application of this training and the myriad effects that come from the war experience. Part one has R. Lee Ermey turning in one of the most profane and iconic performances you will ever see in a film. Remember when Marlow talked about “the fascination of the abomination” when discussing the metaphorical darkness? Well the character of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman embodies that description; you’ll hate him but you can’t stop watching him.
· 2001: A Space Odyssey – Let’s stick with Kubrick. In this movie Kubrick teamed with the immensely talented science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke to deliver this visually and aurally stunning evolutionary history of mankind (and beyond – you’ll understand what this means when you’re done with the movie). Be patient with this film; it begins with no intelligible dialogue for quite some time. There is then a sudden and shocking shift that launches the movie ahead in time and space. Just when you think the movie is turning into a run-of-the-mill space adventure, it takes a hard ontological turn that will leave you thinking about the ending for a good long time.
· The Star Wars Trilogy: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi – Okay, let’s lighten things up a little. With these movies, George Lucas caught lightening in a bottle. Up until near the end of the third edition, these movies have the perfect balance of action, adventure, mystery, philosophy, humor, suspense, good, evil, ambiguity, romance, comparative culture issues, thematic elements, mythological archetypes, quest elements, and literary symbols to appeal to just about any human. (The lazy writing and naked commercialism that are the dominant features of the later movies start to emerge at the end of Jedi.) So, basically these movies are a ton of fun while also respecting your intelligence! In the interest of full disclosure, I saw Star Wars in 1977 in the theaters when I was eight; seeing Darth Vader step through a cloud of smoke into a rebel starship was beyond powerful in impacting a little boy’s imagination!
· Do the Right Thing – This is a Spike Lee joint, and if you were at all intrigued by Things Fall Apart (or any book or movie that deals with race relations) then this will be a good movie for you. What I love about this movie is what I love about TFA: the author/director makes no attempt to create “perfect” people. People are people. The oppressed have flaws and the oppressors have virtues and vice versa. Instead of Africa, however, we are in a black neighborhood in Brooklyn and instead of missionaries and government officials, we have an Italian American pizza joint owner. Lee does an excellent job of using the summer setting to add to the anxiety and stress that builds throughout the movie. And Radio Raheem is awesome and I dare you to tell me otherwise. (Classic movie note: the rings Radio Raheem wears are a tribute to Robert Mitchum’s homicidal preacher and his “love” and “hate” knuckle tattoos from Night of the Hunter.) Oh, did I mention that Public Enemy’s Fight the Power is in this?
· Dog Day Afternoon – Back when people were first starting to act out stories, Aristotle commented that a tragedy should follow one main story (without unnecessary distractions or subplots) and should try to contain its actions within a single day. If a play did this, it would have a truer impact on the audience and lead to a better cathartic experience. Well, this movie definitely pulls this off. Even though it is only two hours long, as a viewer you almost feel like you went through the 12-hour ordeal of this bank robbery/hostage situation. Al Pacino and John Cazale deliver perfect performances as what people who rob banks are really like. Hollywood would never make this movie today because nobody gets to look cool or say the perfect action hero line; the irony being, this movie is so cool because of the lack of these things.
· Inside Man – “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” Walt Whitman wrote this as a way to basically say, “Screw you guys, life is complex and sometimes we change our minds.” Well, this movie contradicts what I just said about Dog Day Afternoon. It is cool as hell and so are all the characters in it. This movie tells the story of how a bank robbery/hostage situation could NEVER happen in real life. But since Denzel Washington and Clive Owen are the stars, we get a steady dose of cool but packaged in a way that doesn’t make you roll your eyes in disbelief. Basically, it’s a fun movie that won’t make you dumber.
· Unforgiven/Unbreakable/Untouchables – Okay, let’s deal with all the “Un” movies. Unforgiven is a cowboy movie starring Clint Eastwood, so you think you know what you are getting, but wait. This is not some white hat versus black hat cowboy movie. Nor is it the mysterious cowboy come to save an unworthy town movie. This movie really is about the scourge archetype. Basically, when there is a lot of evil in the world and God is fed up, he employs a scourge to do the dirty work. (Old Testament God used to take care of his own business, but New Testament God is kinder and gentler.) And as Attila the Hun and Napoleon served as historical scourges (one wiping out the decadence of a debauched Roman Empire, the other cleaning up the mess of the French Revolution), Eastwood’s William Munny must purge the Old West of its violent and licentious ways in order to make way for civilization. But he does so as a scourge, not as a hero. The next “Un” movie is Unbreakable. This was M. Night Shyamalan’s second film (following his wildly successful The Sixth Sense), and in it he delivers a perfect telling of the hero’s journey, all the more perfect because he underpins the movie with a comic book ethos. You can just tell that this movie was made by a person who truly loves the potential of the comic book art form. And the final “Un” movie is The Untouchables. The movie was written by David Mamet, a man who has had success writing for both stage and screen. Although the movie is a wild romp through prohibition-era organized crime and government corruption, it speaks to that tiny sliver of our humanity that, against all hope and reason, continues to want the world to be just, if even for only a brief moment. You can’t help but get swept up in the crusader-like fervor of Eliot Ness and his band of misfit underdogs as they, like a group of knights-errant, try to force the world into a momentary idyll of peace and justice.
· Glengarry Glen Ross – Since I brought up Mamet, let’s take a look at his best work. I wish I had seen this movie before I took my first job out of college, because I would have gladly lived that experience vicariously rather than in reality. Mamet lets us peek into the world of cold-call sales and see the soul-deadening effect that the structure of this world has on the men who live it. This movie is so great because it expertly explores human motivation, the power of language, the harsh battlefield of unfettered capitalism, and social hierarchy without ever being preachy. Mamet pulls a curtain back and lets you take it for what it is. And the ten minutes that Alec Baldwin is in the movie may be the best use of ten minutes by an actor in the history of film. Fascination of the abomination again.
· Taxi Driver – Let’s go back to the 1970’s (the heyday of filmmaking) to take a look at Martin Scorsese’s first big film. You should watch this movie, if for no other reason, for the “Are you talkin’ to me?” scene that has been parodied about a million times on TV and in other movies. But the serious reason to watch this movie is to observe the psychological descent of DeNiro’s Travis Bickle. He is an ironic knight, a real-life version of what happens when someone tries to be a superhero (sorry Kickass, you’re not accurate). This movie shows that the superhero ethos can only really live within the artistic structure of comic books. Thinking like a superhero in the real world would just make you a candidate for a padded room. Anyway, the movie is also amazing at portraying New York City, which takes on its own role in the film. Be warned, this film is dark and unrelenting in its depiction of parts of society at which we tend not to look. Also, it’s the only movie I know of that inspired a presidential assassination attempt (see: John Hinkley Jr.).
· Goodfellas & Casino – If the Godfather movies are like Greek tragedies portraying the fall of a mighty hero, these two mob movies depict the more common, but just as doomed, lives of gangsters several pay grades below Michael Corleone. The characters that populate these movies don’t really have the fatal flaws of tragic heroes, but have the more mundane character defects that plague us all, except plugged into the hierarchy of organized crime. With Goodfellas you get to watch a gangster evolve from the lowest levels of the organization up to a solid middle-management position. The movie sort of holds a cracked mirror up to the corporate model of professional advancement - except with a lot more brutal beatings and executions. As for Casino you get to watch a couple outsiders work their way into the action of a burgeoning gambling industry in Las Vegas. Scorsese is amazing at portraying the seedy underbelly that lurks beneath the glamour and neon of Las Vegas (sort of like he did with New York in Taxi Driver). Also, you get a modern morality tale that exposes the ugliness of avarice (one of the Seven Deadly Sins) about as well as any of its medieval forerunners could have. Oh, DeNiro and Pesci are brilliant in both.
· Chinatown & One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - If you watch Laker games you may wonder why the cameraman shows you shots of Jack Nicholson sitting courtside. Well, these two movies went a long way in establishing Jack as the megastar that he is. If you can make a name for yourself by starring in a film that is essentially based on water rights in Southern California, you can make it anywhere! This movie uses some classic film noire elements, but subtracts the unrealistic bravado while adding just enough believable humanity to make you root for a guy who you know is in over his head. Essentially, this is a David vs. Goliath story, but told with far more subtlety (the Goliaths of the modern world don’t want you to know they are Goliaths, and the Davids don’t always get lucky flinging their stones). While you always have a sneaking suspicion that things aren’t going to turn out Jake’s way, watching a man awaken from his moral sloth is uplifting. When it comes to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jack had the daunting task of becoming a protagonist that had been embraced by the counter-culture revolution of the 1960’s: Randle McMurphy. This character tries to play an angle in the justice system and ends up being swallowed by “the machine” that works to suppress original thought in order to keep the old ways going. You can think of McMurphy as a grown up Huck Finn, a man whom society can’t abide, and thus he gets warehoused and kept out of sight. While this movie succeeds in capturing the themes and spirit of Ken Kesey’s amazing novel, I would still read the book first.
· Bull Durham & Field of Dreams – Baseball is probably the most filmable sport. There is something about its structure, pacing, simultaneous individual/team dynamic that makes it easy to capture its climactic moments. Not to mention there is the built-in symbolism of birth, maturity, and death that is the sport’s nature (season begins in spring, spans the summer, ends in the fall). Bull Durham is all about beginnings and endings. The protagonist is a career journeyman catcher brought to a minor league team to mentor a young superstar in the making. The baseball stuff, however, takes a backseat to the everyman philosophy that Crash Davis imparts to the stubborn Nuke LaLoosh. There is a quasi-Buddhist feel to the movie as the immensely talented but brash and dimwitted Nuke works his way toward enlightenment with the help of the grizzled wiseman, Crash, who got the briefest of peeks into Nirvana when he was once a late-season call up to the Majors. When Field of Dreams was made into a movie I was stunned. In high school I read a book called Shoeless Joe and I loved how it intertwined baseball and literature. One of the reasons I read The Catcher in the Rye was because the protagonist of this book kidnaps J. D. Salinger and takes him to a Red Sox game. The movie, based on this rather obscure novel, does a great job of capturing the mythos of baseball, by American standards an old sport that nevertheless has the singular capacity to fairly compare players across the generations. The movie is also about the healing and redemption that baseball can promote. The great American poet Walt Whitman said "I see great things in baseball. It's our game--the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us." He said this after the Civil War, but I think it still applies today; just ask a Red Sox fan who lived through the heartbreaks of 1946, 1967, 1986, and 2003 before the epic catharsis of 2004.
· No Country For Old Men – When your movie is based on a Cormac McCarthy novel that takes its name from a line from a W. B. Yeats poem, and the plot of the novel itself is essentially a modern retelling of Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale, and it is made by the Coen brothers, well you’re starting with quite a bit of good will built up. The movie does not disappoint, either. While it contains many of the hallmarks of an action film, don’t be fooled; this movie is cerebral. It pokes around in the very dark places of the human soul and ushers the audience to the brink of an abyss before the closing credits roll. Make sure you have someone to talk to after this movie ends, otherwise the experience won’t feel complete. And Anton Chigurh is among the most terrifying villains, physically AND morally, in cinema history.