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Critics shouldn’t look to art to escape life’s disappointments and horrors. At least that seems to be the implicit understanding between critic and reader and probably the reason why people reject critics.
Even as a critic, I get it. Some of the most respected film critics on the job routinely offer observations about cinema that seem to have no terrestrial connection to how most people view films. A particular irritation for me is the elite’s refusal to recognize genre films unless they are endowed with a fashionable political subtext. On the other end of the spectrum, there are critics who are so afraid of accusations of elitism that they seem to like anything equally useless.
What most reviews don’t address, what the formula of a typical review doesn’t really allow, is the acknowledgment that watching movies is like any other experience in life: deeply informed by context, from the wonderful or terrible day at work to money problems to lucky breaks to noisy children to cute children to frustrations or triumphs with your partner. For example, I was struggling with health when in January I discovered my legs were covered in blood clots. This disastrous surprise cut my income from my day job, initially disabled me, increased tensions with my partner, and served as a stark reminder that at 42, middle age really has sailed into port. (As I write this, I’m about to resume much of my normal life, and I’m very grateful for that.)
On my couch with my legs up, with a heating pad under my back, especially after returning from a couple of hospital stays, I trawled through my Blu-rays and various streaming channels in search of a visceral, well, escape, especially early on in mine Legs were swollen to nearly twice their size and unfathomable to me to look at. Many of these films have been ones I’ve wanted to see or revisit for a while, many of them just came to me at the right time and others were clicked out of boredom when I was looking for something to watch. If we want to psychoanalyze a bit, it appears that I was preoccupied with American films of the ’90s, a time when my interest in cinema crystallized during my teenage years. Maybe I wanted to “go back home,” or maybe the Criterion Channel just had a really good series showcasing American Sundance offerings.
None of these films were watched with an article in mind, even if one seems to have outgrown the experience, and no sense of structure, breadth, or completeness was consciously pursued. In fact, I resisted these critical concerns and was just a sick guy. Therefore, I now offer you an abbreviated version of my view list.
“A Perfect World” (1993)/ “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995)
Two underrated Clint Eastwood films made in the transition period between the peak of 1992’s “Unforgiven” and the many acclaimed films he eventually released as a certified American master of things. A Perfect World turns the crook-on-the-run template on its head, starring the best of his career, Kevin Costner, and features lengthy, emotionally gripping scenes that exemplify Eastwood’s gift for allowing moments to breathe. That gift is more evident in The Bridges of Madison County, in which an unreadable ’90s beach book is transformed into a rhapsody of connection, unexpectedly found among the wreckage of middle-aged disappointment and quickly lost. Eastwood’s famous methods – shooting a few takes to keep a scene’s mojo real and alive – bring out in Meryl Streep something sensual, playful and feverish that no other filmmaker has captured. Almost her on-screen counterpart, Eastwood reveals his masculine image to hide deep needs. “A Perfect World” was rented from Amazon, while “The Bridges of Madison County” is available on HBO Max.
“The Water Dance” (1992)
I watched this because it’s about guys in hospitals and I just got out of one. And I’m glad I did, because the film treats a man’s struggle with paralysis with a sensitivity and harshness highly unusual in American cinema. Written by Neal Jimenez from his own experiences and co-directed with Michael Steinberg, The Waterdance follows a trio of men who each seem to embody an emotional aspect of adjustment to trauma. The newly paraplegic Joel (Eric Stoltz) is aloof and cool, burying his reactions, while Bloss (William Forsythe) is a volcano of insecurity and anger, regularly controlled by Raymond (Wesley Snipes), a lonely, broken man who buys a Mac tinkers, goaded dad. Jimenez doesn’t impose any plot on these characters. He watches them, follows them as they try to work their way to their own form of grace. It really needs to be rediscovered. Available on The Criterion Channel.
Stephen King served directly with no pursuers, “Cujo” remains one of the most underrated American horror films of the 1980s. I re-watched the film because its sense of the chaos of normal life as finally glorified by a rabid dog is obviously resonating right now. Dee Wallace Stone is a grueling mother at risk, and the animal work is sensational and unrelentingly compelling. Come for the horror, stay for the subtle class parable when poor, deteriorating Cujo knocks over the apple cart of not one but two crumbling marriages that exist literally on opposite sides of the tracks. Available on Hulu.
“Mr. Jealousy” (1997)
Eric Stoltz again, this time reuniting with writer-director Noah Baumbach from the poignant and poignant college comedy Kicking and Screaming. What happened to Stolz? Take a look at the American indie scene of the 90’s and you’ll see that he was in everything and never bad. Here, Stoltz plays a reliable, all-too-real guy: the artistic guy who’s intelligent and vaguely talented, but never seems able to put his skills to the service of achieving anything tangible. Such frustrations lead to defensive entitlement and a raging jealousy issue with his girlfriend (Annabella Sciorra), who once dated a real-life writer (former Whit Stillman MVP, Chris Eigeman). An absurd plot involving the late actor and filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich as therapist never comes into focus, but Stoltz brings pathos and bite to Baumbach’s absurd jokes. Available on the Criterion Channel.
“Chances Against Tomorrow” (1959)
Director Robert Wise is universally known for square and gargantuan productions like West Side Story and The Sound of Music, but Odds Against Tomorrow shows he had a flair for the kind of pseudo-realistic noir we commonly associate with of the French New Wave. Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan and Ed Begley play down-and-outers planning a bank robbery – so far, so familiar – except the film spends over an hour of its mere 96 minutes weaving in and out of these men’s personal lives . It’s less a genre film and more a gritty, haunting character study, with Belafonte and Ryan providing much of the juice, as Ryan’s character is a racist who distrusts his African-American conspirator. As in the even meaner sociological noir “Crossfire,” Ryan doesn’t throw his punches, doesn’t give a damn whether you like him or not, and Belafonte invests his character with smoldering, tight-wound reserves of adaptation and resentment. The end is inevitable and galvanic. Available on the Criterion Channel.
“Sorry to Bother You” (2018)
I’ve never seen this movie when it was all the rage a few summers ago and that’s a shame because the hype is justified. In his directorial debut, artist Boots Riley tells the story of a bankrupt African-American telemarketer, Cassius (LaKeith Stanfeld), who rises through the ranks of a vile corporation by embracing a “white voice” that coerces customers into buying anything from him. The White Voice is among Riley’s better imaginings, being disembodied by Cassius and his associates, sometimes suggesting a sentient entity that could take over her consciousness. Riley’s obsession with various permutations of original white sin is reminiscent of Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled,” and “Sorry to Bother You” develops, at best, a similar outrage that blends the personal with the political with the corporate strata of modern life. Such associations are complemented by the film’s setting and look, as this pseudo-futuristic Oakland blends extreme poverty with wealth and suggests the porous border between the two, particularly in marketing. (Think of “Repo Man” as a reset in a bombed-out art gallery, and you’re embracing the stylistic vibe of this fiercely handcrafted film.) However, Riley’s ambitions overwhelm him almost towards the end of the film, as he veers towards the realm of the allegorical Horrors and risks making his dazzling satire obvious. However, his willingness to take such risks is intoxicating. Available on Netflix.