L.A Confidential (1997, Directed by Curtis Hanson) English 10

Starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Danny Devito, Kim Basinger, David Strathairn, James Cromwell

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(10-Masterpiece)

Potent. Dazzling. Masterful.

Curtis Hanson’s 1997 film, based on James Ellroy’s novel, has many elements usually found in a bad adaptation: bastardized plot, watered-down themes (especially the racist qualities of the protagonists), and a cast that veers rather strongly from their original character descriptions , including an Australian and a New Zealander playing American cops in key roles. It’s a credit to the filmmakers, or truly everyone involved- the writers, the cinematographer, the stars, composer Jerry Goldsmith, who did the terrific score-that instead of feeling like a hack adaptation, L.A Confidential feels like a perfect movie; perfectly paced, perfectly performed, and perfectly filmed. Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce play three disparate cops, at odds mostly, who all get swept up from different angles into a massive crime plot involving prostitution, police corruption, heroin, and Mickey Cohen. Kim Basinger merges two Hollywood clichés (hooker with the heart of gold with the classic femme fatale) in her role as Lynn Bracken, but makes the part vital, and reminds us why we like the clichés.  The plot, as it is, seems as complex and mystifying as any ever portrayed on screen, and remembering that it’s working with maybe a third of the book begs the question of how I ever seemed to understand the book. In any case, those tough choices, the decision to go for Ellroy’s spirit rather than exact faithfullness, were judicious, and the resulting film is a major triumph.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Cactus Flower (1969, Directed by Gene Saks) English 6

Starring Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, Goldie Hawn, Rick Lenz, Jack Weston

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Flower power, short, spiraling hairdos, and Quincy Jones’ music fill out the background in this decidedly ’60s romantic comedy. Walter Matthau, with his stooped posture and estimable deadpan, doesn’t have to do much to get laughs, but here, gets a fine role as Dr. Julian Winston, a cad and a half, who tells the women he sleeps with that he’s married to halt any thoughts they might have of long term commitment. His newest conquest, Toni Simmons, played by Goldie Hawn, who won an Oscar in this, her debut, turns the tables on him by threatening suicide, forcing his hand since he’s completely hooked on her. He wants to marry her, but she feels that she needs to meet with his soon-to-be ex-wife first. He has two options: come clean and tell the truth, OR! get his loyal, spinsterish dental assistant, Ms. Dickinson (Bergman), to play his wife for a spell. You can guess which option he chooses. Funny premise generates a funny film, though it’s an odd composite of a stars, and indeed, if one thinks too hard on it, they don’t really go together, however, they’re all quite wonderful in their parts separate from each other. Ingrid Bergman’s given the most sympathetic character, and it’s a pleasure to watch her in such a brazen comedy, shedding- but only partially- her saintly image. Written by frequent Billy Wilder collaborator, I.A.L Diamond, and directed by Gene Saks, following his hit, The Odd Couple (1968). Farcical. Wacky. Time Capsule.

Nothing But the Truth (1941, Directed by Elliot Nugent) English 6

Starring Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Edward Arnold, Helen Vinson, Willie Best, Leif Erickson

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Steve Bennett (Hope), new to T.R Ralston’s stockbroking company, and Miami, gets caught up in a few schemes all at once: his boss’ niece, Gwen (Goddard), needs to raise $20,000 for a charity before the end of the month, and tricks Steve in to helping; his coworker needs to get out of an affair with a temperamental mistress, and tricks Steve into leering her away; and the head boss, Mr. Ralston himself tricks Steve into accepting a wager, wherein he can’t lie for a whole day with someone always nearby to watch him. Late screwball comedy that highlights Bob Hope’s great ability and Paulette Goddard’s charm. Fast. Odd. Funny.

Charade (1963, Directed by Stanley Donen) English 10

Starring Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Coburn, George Kennedy, Walter Matthau

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Two of classic Hollywood’s greatest stars pair, with Audrey Hepburn playing Regina Lampert,  the widow of a man who stole a fortune during the war. Her husband’s old partners in crime come calling, betrayed and left out of their cut, to follow Regina, believing that she knows where the money is hidden. Cary Grant plays the mysterious and charming Peter Joshua. Regina quickly falls in love with the man, but can she trust him? Excellent script, full of snappy lines, and romantic patter. Also an excellent whodunnit, an excellent romantic comedy, and an excellent thriller. Charade works tremendously on all levels. Enchanting. Sparkling. Suave.

And Then There Were None (2018, Directed by Rene Clair) English 10

Starring Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, June Duprez, Louis Hayward, Roland Young, Richard Haydn, Judith Anderson, Mischa Auer

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Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None was a dark, terrifying murder mystery set on a remote island, and possibly one of the earliest precursors to the modern slasher.  In her novel, eight strangers and a married couple meet, all with criminal secrets, for what was supposed to be fun and games, but turns out to be psychotic retribution, as one among them is a killer, picking off the others one by one. This 1945 adaptation, due to restrictive production codes, couldn’t match its source’s ferocity, so instead, it provides a witty, stylish, and entertaining thriller, light on scares, but full of suspense. By going with all character actors, the film lets you know that any one can die over the course of the movie, whereas a movie star would have to survive until at least the end. Breaking the fourth wall with the character introductions was just one of director, Rene Clair’s numerous wonderful touches. Droll. Skillful. Hair-raising.

Sex in Film isn’t Interesting

Here comes an article from the old cantankerous man in me: every other Hollywood R rated film has one: the obligatory sex scene. On average, it’ll last 5 seconds, with an emphasis on the upper body, accompanied by bedroom sounds. It’s not difficult to picture the behind the scenes mechanics of a Hollywood sex scene. Many actors have spoken about how awkward they can be. Setting aside the tedious details of how simulated sex scenes are done, attempting to look past any prudishness I have, I simply don’t think sex scenes are ever very good, and that’s not reserved for Hollywood. Perhaps there’s a bias that comes with being an American, but for me, as opposed to violence in film, sex scenes, in general, are not interesting cinematically. Sex scenes, simulated or unsimulated, are not romantic, they’re not sexy, they’re rarely realistic, and they’re always reduced to the same level (regardless of the acting or technical talent involved).

I can think of one handful of exceptions, but the majority of sex scenes aren’t sexy. When I think of sexy or romantic scenes across film history, I think of Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps playing basketball together in Love and Basketball (2000), Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis sharing a passionate kiss at long last in Witness (1985), James Stewart and Donna Reed sharing a phone call in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson struggling over a soppy book in Remains of the Day (1993), Daniel Day-Lewis unbuttoning Michelle Pfeiffer’s gloves in The Age of Innocence (1993), just off the top of my head. These scenes all built up dramatic tension through writing, acting, staging, what-have-you. How many different ways can you stage a sex scene? What’s the last sex scene that was filmed in a way you hadn’t seen before? I don’t think it even matters, because my main grievance with sex scenes, and maybe this only applies to me, but they all work on the same level, and sure they’re appealing on a base level, but not on any level I respect. Have you ever watched a sex scene and been impressed or moved by the performances? I haven’t. It doesn’t matter if it was Oscar winner Cate Blanchett or Playboy Playmate Shannon Tweed, no one is watching the acting. No one is thinking about the movie. If there is nudity involved in a scene, no one is thinking period. Can anyone relate Little Finger’s back story (this is a Game of Thrones reference, so not a movie, but my point remains)?

Violence in cinema can serve any number of purposes. It can give a film weight (Unforgiven), setup suspense (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), provide dark humor (Pulp Fiction or Fargo). Violence can even be aesthetically beautiful (which I’m sure many object to) as in Jean-Louis Trintignant’s sacrifice in The Great Silence. Nine times out of ten, sex scenes are just there for me to ignore awkwardly with my family.

-Walter Howard-

Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear (1945, Directed by Roy William Neill) English 6

Starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Dennis Hoey, Aubrey Mather, Paul Cavanagh

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Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) is called in with his earnest sidekick, Dr. Watson (Bruce), to investigate the deaths of two members of a secretive club, whose deaths were preceded by threatening letters. The remaining five club members fear for their lives, while it becomes clear that one of them is likely behind it all. Rathbone and Bruce, who played the iconic pair, more times than anyone are in their element here. Rathbone always looks amused and one step ahead of the rest, while Bruce provides the comic relief and every now and then stumbles on to some important clue. The film, short and sweet, wraps up with a very satisfying conclusion. Suspenseful. Assured. Solid.