GUN CRAZY (1950) – Annie Laurie Starr, get your gun

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

I enjoy hearing stories about how people met their spouses. It gives me a little insight into both the couple and the person who’s telling the story.

In Gun Crazy, Bart Tare (John Dall) meets his future wife, Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), while he’s shooting at her head at a carnival.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The movie begins with flashbacks of the young Bart, showing how interested he is in guns. He doesn’t want to kill anyone or anything with them. At the risk of sounding Freudian, in Bart’s view, a gun seems to be a piece of security in life — which Bart could certainly use, having been raised only by his sister.

Bart pays a price to society for his gun obsession and is then set free. On his first day of freedom, Bart and his old friends go to town to attend a carnival, where Bart sees Laurie performing as a sharpshooter. Sparks (and bullets) fly quickly between the two.

Through the usual film-noir machinations, Laurie is eventually as free and beholden to no one as Bart is. So she decides to make Bart beholden to her. She figures that, with their joint expertise with guns, they can get whatever they want in life. At first, Bart hesitates at getting that down-and-dirty, but when Laurie threatens to leave him, Bart caves.

From there, an ever-spiralling series of circumstances make it doubtful that Bart and Laurie will make it to their first wedding anniversary.

Even by noir standards, this is one of the most pervasive weird movies I’ve ever seen — and one of the most riveting. Its most fascinating aspect is how the movie’s POV nonchalantly observes this in-over-the-head couple going on an increasingly violent robbing and shooting spree. Cinema’s Production Code guaranteed that the couple would pay for their actions in the end — but that doesn’t mean that viewers don’t get some titillating and voyeuristic thrills along the way.

John Dall is strangely touching as Bart, depicting how Bart’s pacifism slowly gets swept away by this woman who’s giving him the romance he thought he’d never have (in more ways than one). And Peggy Cummins long ago entered film-noir history as the ultimate manipulative dame. She offers us Laurie at face value, with no reasons or apologies for her grubby, grabby behavior — and just like Bart, we get swept up in her quiet fury.

I’ve never owned a gun or even fired one, for the same reason that many people give: I fear that it would be too easy to give into its temptation as an easy answer to an otherwise low-key conflict. Gun Crazy takes that premise to its ultimate extension. If only Bart had been more obsessed with marbles or coin-collecting when he was young…

AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007) – No-holds-barred look at a smooth, ruthless drug dealer

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It’s astonishing how far dysfunctional families will go to convince themselves that they’re not living a lie.

In American Gangster, the dysfunctional family is the American heroin market. The head of the family is druglord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). And the outsider and truth-teller is Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an estranged police detective.

Roberts’ and Lucas’ stories are told in mesmerizing parallel. Roberts is cherry-tree-era George Washington when it comes to being a cop. He does something major, seemingly a good deed, that brings him eternal enmity among his fellow cops.

Lucas does something major, too — dealing heroin in Harlem. Yet he is looked up to by his family, his “employees,” and even the Italian mobsters from whom he steals the drug trade. Seemingly, the only person in the world interested in bringing Lucas to justice is Roberts.

Lest these men sound cliche, it’s only because I won’t spoil the movie by divulging its rich character details: The way that Roberts bluffs magnificently to rescue a fellow cop from his certain murder. The way Lucas goes to elaborate lengths to obtain the pure heroin he deals. And best of all, the telling bit of flashy clothing that finally tips Lucas off to Roberts.

Such details are the result of another razor-sharp script from Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and direction from Ridley Scott (who only seems to be getting better in his fourth decade of movie-making).

Among the supporting players, the nicest surprise is Ruby Dee as Lucas’ elderly mother. At first, she seems like a typical, saintly old lady. Then there’s a scene in which she encapsulates an entire movie’s worth of characterization in about three minutes. Beautiful.

Denzel Washington delivers another personal best. Watch Lucas’ sleek suavity boil over into frightful anger. Or watch his face subtly droop when he realizes his drug kingdom is starting to decay.

I had feared that Russell Crowe, as in L.A. Confidential, would play his cop as a one-note good guy. But Roberts’ noble detective work is just one strand of his DNA. As the rest of his life shows us, he’s not terribly virtuous; he’s just driven to do this deed.

Most amazing aspect is how the movie makes us identify with these opposing extremes of the same coin. If you can stomach the violence — and from the start, the movie pulls no punches — American Gangster will richly reward you.

THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) – Machismo in space

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The Right Stuff gives us a 1980’s gloss on America’s first astronaut heroes, warts and all.

The story begins in the 1940’s, with the Air Force trying to find a pilot who could break the sound barrier and live to tell about it. Near the beginning of the movie, Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) rides his horse to an Air Force base to inspect the plane intended to break the barrier. The plane’s ignition is spewing flames and looks as though it could take off on its own. The symbolism is none too subtle: Test pilots were the last American cowboys, and Yeager is going to have to lasso this wild horse on his own.

Eventually he does so, leaving other test pilots with new worlds to conquer. “Hot-dog” pilots descend upon Edwards Air Force Base to break Yeager’s records, and Yeager counter by topping the record-breakers. It seems as though there are no more frontiers to tame, until the Russians get a man into space before the Americans. Soon NASA is looking for space jockeys who have “the right stuff,” which means having the guts to fly into space and also look good for the press while they’re doing it.

While The Right Stuff has drawn raves over the years, its critics have contended that the movie displays broad caricatures instead of characters. (Lyndon Johnson, then the vice-president who helped get the space program started, is shown as a yahoo, though his most riotous line of dialogue is said to be based on fact.) I prefer to think that the movie shows its heroes to be all too human, rather than the standard movie heroes of perfection. The space program was obviously making up its rules as it went along, and it asked its pilots to do things that hadn’t been asked of them before. (When a nurse gives Gordon Cooper [Dennis Quaid] a test tube to fill with a particular type of bodily fluid, his reaction is one for the books.)

The cast in uniformly good. Like the pilots they portray, Shepard, Quaid, Scott Glenn, and especially Ed Harris as John Glenn, all come through with flying colors. As NASA housewives who could have come off as drab, Barbara Hershey and Pamela Reed, among others, give nice shadings to their roles. Best of all are the Washington bureaucrats trying to save face — Donald Moffat savoring the role of Vice-President Johnson, and Jeff Goldblum and comedy veteran Harry Shearer as Washington’s answer to Laurel and Hardy.

The movie is not quite perfect. At a little over three hours, it could have used a little trimming. It has a couple of endings too many, and some gaps in continuity. (One scene depicts bar-hopping women hoping to “conquer” all of the astronauts, and the scene inexplicably cuts from John Glenn eyeing the women to Glenn lecturing his fellow astronauts on abstinence.)

But the movie is never less than engrossing, and if you can tolerate the machismo banter, it’s worth it to see a portrait of some flawed men who nevertheless had what it took to conquer space.

BLACK SNAKE MOAN (2007) – Pulp friction

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Black Snake Moan doesn’t begin to hide its trash origins; in fact, it embraces them. But the movie gets at something, and it does so far more effectively than a lot of higher-toned movies.

The movie’s premise at first seems hopeless. Rae (Christina Ricci) is an outrageous nymphomaniac. Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) is a broken-down blues singer whose wife has just left him. One day, Lazarus finds Rae at the side of a road near his home, beaten and near death. He goes to town to get some medicine for Rae and finds out about her seedy reputation. Out of nowhere, Lazarus divines a cure for what ails Rae: He chains Rae to the radiator in his front room and, in essence, says that she won’t be released until her demons are expunged.

That premise alone is going to elicit at least two reactions from the movie’s potential audience. Feminists will carp about an older man passive-aggressively chaining up a woman because he thinks it’s for her own good. Then there are the lascivious men in the audience who will lick their lips and say, “Ooh, man! Christina Ricci in bondage!”

But surprisingly, once the movie gets past its sweaty, Southern Gothic beginning, the characters really start to unveil some interesting layers. Ricci takes what could have been a simple, tacky role and gives it some genuine depth. Her take on Rae reminds me of Jodie Foster in The Accused — showing a woman’s vulnerability in the face of her supposed worldliness and sexual voraciousness.

And Jackson, after sleepwalking through Snakes on a Plane, once again twitches with electricity. It’s as if his Bible-spouting hitman from Pulp Fiction suddenly got a mirror stuck in his face to show him that he has a few of his own demons to conquer.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Justin Timberlake is very effective as Rae’s erstwhile lover. “Law & Order’s” S. Epatha Merkerson is a sunny presence throughout, providing some joy to counter Jackson’s gravitas. And John Cothran Jr. takes a stereotypical role — a very preachy preacher — and turns it inside out. The scene where his character explains his concept of heaven is a metaphor for all of the movie’s characters — cutting through the guff and getting to what really matters.

At its center, Black Snake Moan is about an old codger condescending to save a young girl’s soul and realizing how much cleansing his own soul needs. The movie might not be as spirited as a homecoming revival, but it certainly is a blessed tonic to more pretentious movies with similar themes.

 

LITTLE MAN TATE (1991) – Amazing movie about an amazing child

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In her directorial debut Little Man Tate, Jodie Foster exhibits the same innate, glorious intelligence that she has personified so beautifully as an actress in movies such as The Accused and Contact. In her best movies, she comes across as a no-nonsense woman who is sometimes too blunt because she has no time or patience for social niceties. That approach works perfectly here, particularly in Foster’s supporting role as a single mom who is clueless about how to handle her prodigy-son.

The title character is played by Adam Hann-Byrd, who is one of those Hollywood rarities: a child actor who doesn’t give off the slightest sense that he’s acting. Fred, the child prodigy, is a genius, and of course, he is branded as a freak by his more average classmates because of this. Dianne Wiest plays a teacher who wants to encourage Fred by enrolling him in a summer course for such prodigies. Thanks to the teacher’s snooty attitude, Fred’s mom is immediately suspicious of her motives. But both women, through the film’s many trials of Fred, provide what he needs: the teacher provides the means for Fred to express himself with like-minded students; Fred’s mom provides his nurturing and love at all costs.

That includes making Fred unsympathetic at some points. One scene, a conversation between Fred and his mom, shows Fred belittling her for not being as smart as he is. Rather than letting Fred have it with a you-don’t-talk-like-that-to-your-mother speech, his mother sits there and takes it — not because she’s a wimp by any means, but because she knows that Fred is lashing out at not being accepted by his peers and she is, unhappily, his closest target. Their reconciliation scene is touchingly directed by Foster, too — the teacher tries to nose into their business one more time, realizes what’s happening, and backs off.

Those scenes, and many others, are so refreshing because they treat everyone in the movie, from Fred on down, like real people. Harry Connick Jr. plays a college-age student who sympathizes with and befriends Fred, and yet he and Fred also have a confrontation. Nobody in the movie is spared from being human (read: losing his/her temper, even with someone he/she loves). That alone makes the movie a rarity in mainstream films.

1991 was a beautiful year for female-directed movies, including Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides and this one. In fact, these two would make an ideal double feature. Just keep a generous supply of Kleenex nearby while watching them.

SCHINDLER’S LIST (1997) – Steven Spielberg’s sobering look at the Holocaust

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Schindler’s List — a clear-eyed, flawless look at the Holocaust — is a movie filled with infinite paradoxes.

The most obvious paradox is its true story. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) was a German businessman who ran factories that made unusable products in order to save the lives of the factory workers — 1,100 Jews who otherwise would have been sent to Nazi death camps.

The movie shows the man but never quite explains him. Schindler is a rich womanizer — what has he to gain from this astounding gesture? Spielberg answers that question, not by delving into Schindler’s character, but by showing the atrocity going on around Schindler.

That atrocity is best personified by Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the Nazi who runs the Krakow ghetto as well as a Jewish death camp. Goeth is the absolute evil among evils, a man playing God in the most lethal sense.

Goeth’s atrocities range from petty to tragic. In one scene, he considers raping one of his Jewish servants, but then he verbally ponders how tainted she would seem to him after the rape, and so he merely slaps her. In another instance, a Jewish woman tries to warn him of a mistake in one of the death camp’s physical details. Goeth shoots the woman, then tells an underling to correct the mistake.

Schindler’s List soberly examines the ethics between these two extremes. The Nazis want to have somebody, anybody, come begging to them. They play into the hands of Schindler, who acts as though he’s using the war to his own ends when what he’s really doing is saving Jewish lives.

Then there are the movie’s commercial paradoxes. In 1993, nobody would have expected Steven Spielberg, known mostly for escapist fare, to have made such a haunting movie. It looks as though a camera was just set down in the middle of the Holocaust to soberly record its brutality. The movie runs over three hours and is not a minute too long.

 

THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948) – It’s a treasure, all right!

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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of those great movies that has permeated the American consciousness. Even if you’ve never seen it, you might think you have, just because of all of its pop-culture touchstones.

“Fred C. Dobbs is nobody’s fool!” “Can you help a fellow American who’s down on his luck?” “I don’t need to show you no stinkin’ badge!” And most of all, Walter Huston dancing on top of a hill of gold (comedian Billy Crystal has worked that one to death).

But despite its parodied points, six decades later, the movie still surprises. It remains one of the best-ever filmic statements of man’s infinite capacity for greed. It has great performances and a thunderous pace. (Oscars went to Walter Huston for the former, and his son, director John Huston, for the latter.) And even the first 15 minutes, which is little more than exposition, is culturally fascinating. You’re listening to a bunch of street bums talk, and you think, even the bums were more literate than they are now.

The story takes place in 1925 Tampico and concerns a down-on-their-luck trio (Huston, Tim Holt, and Humphrey Bogart at his most fascinatingly unlikable). Huston is an old prospector who claims to have gone through several fortunes in gold. Bogart and Holt, with no job prospects, decide to go prospecting in Mexico, with the old man’s expertise at hand.

Turns out the old man knows even more about human nature than he does about prospecting. He spouts some dire philosophies about what gold can do to human nature, and Dobbs (Bogart) swears that could never happen to him and his buddy Curtin (Holt). Guess who turns out to be right. Dobbs at his most paranoid is not a pretty sight.

It’s a movie deserving of its classic status. And along with its other virtues, try playing “Spot the Star.” It’s not every movie that sports John Huston (as an American hounded by Dobbs), a young Robert Blake (selling lottery tickets), and “I Dream of Jeannie’s” Barton MacLane in the first ten minutes.