It can be said that bad movies are a crime, but very often good movies have crime as part of their stories. Consider Adam Sandler’s latest Netflix offering (his second of a four-film deal), which has its heroes hitting the road and solving a puzzle as a direct result of committing a crime (faking their own deaths).
Other movies this week deal with home invasions and federal investigations. A jury tries to decide whether an accused murder is innocent, and a monster attacks a family based on an ill-fated wish. And in two of this week’s movies, the promise of hidden gold drives all kinds of terrible deeds, from betrayal to murder.
Sometimes “crime” is a little less easily defined. An immature father doesn’t know how to be around his son, and tends to leave. A man (or, a Jerk) earns a fortune and loses everything. Another man becomes the leader of the most powerful nation on earth and starts a war. And a soldier in war travels upriver, under orders to kill one of his own men.
Finally, sometimes, nothing shady happens at all. Sometimes things just happen, and they seem to be bad, but they can turn out to be good, as when a boy survives a devastating shipwreck, but finds a friend that changes his life.
The best of what’s new on Netflix
After inking a four-picture deal with Netflix, Adam Sandler’s first original movie for the streaming giant, The Ridiculous 6, was pretty much universally loathed and may well be considered among the worst of the actor’s already not-too-highly-praised career. I myself attempted to watch it—I love a good Western—but only made it about 20 minutes before throwing up my hands and turning it off. On the other hand, Sandler’s second Netflix movie The Do-Over (2016) lives up to its very appropriate title. It has some decent user ratings on both Netflix and IMDB; I’m not saying it’s outstanding, but in Sandler’s filmography there can be no kinder words than: It doesn’t suck.
Sandler gives the main focus to David Spade, who plays a sad-sack 40-something stuck in a rut; Sandler plays an old pal who tries to help, by faking their deaths and starting over. At first they hit the jackpot, finding a safe deposit box full of cash and a Puerto Rican bungalow that’s all theirs, but they soon learn that bad guys are after them. The reason behind it all is really, really far-fetched, but for the first time in a while, Sandler and Spade have created sympathetic characters that try to help one another. While Sandler is usually known for making movies in which he and his pals get to go on lavish vacations, he has finally learned, somewhat, how to let the audience in on the fun. It’s still a bit long and a bit too reliant on juvenile humor, but anyone who hasn’t yet given up on Sandler should be pleased.
Cold in July
Based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale and directed by Jim Mickle (Stake Land, We Are What We Are), Cold in July (2014) is as superb an American crime film as any made in the past several years; it has the potential to achieve cult status similar to that held by Blood Simple and Reservoir Dogs. In East Texas, 1989, family man Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall, from TV’s Dexter) shoots an intruder in his home. The dead man’s father, Ben Russell (Sam Shepard), begins hanging around, making vague threats, and Richard discovers that the man he shot is not exactly who the cops said he was.
Richard and Ben decide to form a truce to find out what really happened, hiring the cocky, flashy private detective Jim Bob Luke (a delightfully scenery-chewing Don Johnson). Mickle has fun with the 1980s sensibility, from bad hair to bad music (and a John Carpenter-inspire synthesizer score), while luxuriating in open spaces and drawling rhythms; the movie takes time to look over all kinds of wonderful, minute details. But best of all, Mickle layers in warm humor, terrifying horror, and a little human curiosity and understanding, making this a tale worth enjoying and then pondering. Vinessa Shaw co-stars as Richard’s wife.
Despite the talent involved, Oscar-winning writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk) and legendary director Clint Eastwood, J. Edgar (2011) was immediately misunderstood and underrated. When Eastwood more or less invented today’s “biopic formula” with his excellent Bird (1988), the storytelling was fairly straightforward. But J. Edgar is as deliberately tricky and manipulative as its real-life subject, FBI cofounder and director J. Edgar Hoover. He was, by some counts, the most famous man of the 20th century, and held onto his power by keeping damning files on the world’s rich and famous.
At some point, Hoover (played with consummate skill by Leonardo DiCaprio), decides to record his memoirs, but keeps firing the writers for asking too many of the wrong kinds of questions. He clearly attempts to bend and dodge the truth, and this movie follows in those footsteps. Hoover’s childhood under a domineering mom (Judi Dench), a stutter, a penchant for women’s clothing, and possible homosexuality are likewise deliberately dealt with in ways that cast doubt on their validity. Hoover even speaks, several times, about the actual concept of recording history, and how this process can be affected or changed. In essence, the movie becomes less about one man, than about this struggle to tell stories when the stories tend to happen all by themselves. Naomi Watts and Armie Hammer costar, as secretary Helen Gandy and right-hand man Clyde Tolson, respectively.
New on Hulu/Amazon Prime
The new summer movie season has begun, which means lots of explosions, and so it might be useful to look back at a great summer movie from the past that used explosions in a slightly different way. Released in August of its year, Apocalypse Now (1979) was arguably the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s reign as the biggest director in Hollywood, and it might still be his boldest, most dangerous, most awesome work; it’s certainly one of the best movies of its era, or perhaps any era. The shoot was legendarily difficult (a behind-the-scenes documentary, Hearts of Darkness, released in 1991, is nearly as captivating as its subject), and Coppola seemed to have completed it while half-mad.
Based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, it concerns U.S. Army Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), who is sent upriver on a grim mission. He is to find and kill Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has gone mad and set himself up in the jungle as a kind of bald god. Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Frederic Forrest, and a 14 year-old Laurence Fishburne play Willard’s crew; Harrison Ford plays a colonel, Dennis Hopper is a brain-baked photographer, and Robert Duvall steals the movie as the strutting, barking Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, who lets his men surf after napalm attacks. Coppola’s visual treatment is never less than astonishing, with constantly striking, haunting uses of sound, motion, light and shadow. It’s a nightmare of a poem, utterly unforgettable. It received eight Oscar nominations, winning only for Cinematography and Sound; it lost the Best Picture award to Kramer vs. Kramer.
(In 2001, Coppola released a re-edited, longer version, Apocalypse Now Redux, which is also available on Hulu and Amazon Prime; it’s interesting—and still great—but I like it less than the original; it seems somehow more calculated and less primal.)
The Black Stallion
Somehow, during the making of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola found time to executive produce this outstanding children’s film, which, like all great children’s films, is really for everyone. An associate of both Coppola and George Lucas, Carroll Ballard had shot second-unit for Star Wars before making his feature debut with The Black Stallion (1979). It’s astoundingly beautiful work, dreamlike and quiet in many moments, inquisitive and realistic in others, and in still others, visceral and powerful. In the 1940s, a young boy Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno, who was already an expert handler of horses) finds himself shipwrecked with a glorious Arabian Stallion, and eventually befriends and trains it.
Back home, a professional trainer (Mickey Rooney) turns the horse into a racer; Alec forms a bond with the old man, much to the consternation of his mother (Teri Garr). The novel by Walter Farley was adapted by Melissa Mathison, who went on to write E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for Steven Spielberg and Kundun for Martin Scorsese. The Black Stallion received two Oscar nominations, for Best Editing, and for Rooney’s supporting performance. The shame of it is that, even though this is a classic, its rhythms are so wildly different from anything made for children today that it may seem like a relic. It deserves a second chance.
The Good, the Bad & the Ugly
In their day, Spaghetti Westerns were not considered anything more than a bastard stepchild, and certainly no one would guess that some of the men behind them were among the most exceptional cinematic artists in the world. Today, Sergio Leone, at least, has earned at least some notice, though he’s still not quite ranked with the Rossellinis or De Sicas of history. However, his film The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (1966) is at least frequently counted on the lists of the greatest Westerns ever made. Compared to other filmmakers, Leone seems to have an almost infinite canvas at his disposal, and he was unafraid to go the extra step: extreme close-ups, extreme wide shots, empty frames, lengthy pauses, and sudden movement. Above all, there’s the uncanny music of Ennio Morricone, twangy, screechy, thumping... bizarre and exciting.
It’s no wonder the movie made a star of Clint Eastwood and launched a seemingly endless string of Spaghetti Westerns for co-star Lee Van Cleef. These two outlaw gunfighters, plus a third (Eli Wallach) are all after a stolen cache of gold, buried in a graveyard. Sometimes they reluctantly partner up, and sometimes they betray each other, with the American Civil War raging in the background. The epic story all comes to a head as the trio show up at the graveyard at the same time for a memorable stand-off and showdown. Amazon Prime and Hulu seem to be offering the 179-minute, 2003 restored print, wherein Eastwood, Wallach and a Van Cleef voice impersonator (the real Van Cleef died in 1989) were called in to dub a selection of footage never before shown in the United States.
It was released in 2008, the final year of George W. Bush’s second term as President of the United States, and Oliver Stone’s W. (2008) seemed a little too little, too late. At least half the country was dissatisfied at best, and flat-out accusatory at worst, of this Commander-in-Chief; if this had been the Stone of two decades previous, the incendiary Stone of Salvador, Platoon, and JFK, then there might have been some fireworks. What came instead was soft and unremarkable, but also surprisingly interesting and sympathetic.
Josh Brolin gives a fine performance as Bush (in the same year that he played Harvey Milk’s killer Dan White in Gus Van Sant’s Milk), shown as a simple, baseball-loving guy—a hellraiser in his early years—who really just wanted to impress his father and got in a little over his head. An all-star cast fills out the Rogue’s Gallery that was Bush’s cabinet, but Richard Dreyfuss comes the closest to crossing a line with a sneering, snake-eyed Vice President Dick Cheney, while Stacy Keach is very impressive as Bush’s harelipped minister Earle Hudd. The movie opened to less-than-enthusiastic ticket sales (more people went to see Stone’s flop Alexander) and middling reviews (though the late Roger Ebert awarded it four stars). Third-hand sources suggested in 2010 that Bush himself actually saw the movie and “liked it very much” but “thought there were sad moments.”
Catch this movie on Crackle
At the end of the 1970s, Steve Martin was a rock-star-caliber comedian with hot-selling record albums (and even a top 40 hit, “King Tut”) and popular TV appearances, when he made his acting debut in a leading role (he had been in small parts in The Muppet Movie and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in the latter as “Dr. Maxwell Edison”). Cowritten by Martin, The Jerk (1979) followed in the footsteps of National Lampoon’s Animal House, going for broad, irreverent, devil-may-care humor, and it worked. It may not be the most intelligent movie ever made, some of it is a bit dated, and some of it may be a little offensive, but in generating loads of giggles, it works like gangbusters.
Martin plays Navin Johnson, more of a naïve doofus than a jerk. The adopted son of poor, African-American sharecroppers, he hits the road to find himself, meets a dog called “S—thead,” gets a job at a gas station (working for Jackie Mason), avoids the random wrath of a sniper (M. Emmet Walsh), invents a gizmo for keeping glasses in place on people’s faces, and falls in love with Marie (Bernadette Peters). Still one of the biggest hits of Martin’s career, the movie is perhaps best known for its whacko lines of dialogue, like: “He hates these cans!” or “For one dollar, I’ll guess your weight, your height, or your sex!”