It’s now been 14 weeks since I last saw a film in a movie theater or screening room — anywhere, that is, other than on my home screen. We all know why. This certainly sets a record for any time since I was perhaps 10 years old, or maybe even younger, as going to the movies has been perhaps my most consistent sustained habit since I reached double digits.
I’ve certainly missed the experience, along with the anticipation of the new, the communally shared activity, the lack of any interruption from outside reality. A lot of people in the business, beginning with theater owners, are sweating it out, wondering whether the public will return to experience movies en masse or if the habit will have broken after such a long layoff, never to fully return.
No one can complain about the lack of entertainment alternatives during this time of enforced banishment from theaters. To the contrary, the at-home options are near-endless, and I know film buffs with private collections of titles it would take multiple lifetimes to get through. One obsessed friend who grew up in England during World War II is currently watching nothing but films released in 1946.
The two last films I saw projected on theater screens were both exceedingly violent action dramas, one dreadful, the other pretty damn good. The former, The Hunt, which was released theatrically on March 13 and shifted over to TV screens a week later, is a politicized “Most Dangerous Game” redo that endeavors to make shock slapstick comedy out of humans hunting down other humans for sport. Deplorable is the word.
The other film tripped up by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, just when it was set to premiere at SXSW, was the Afghan War combat drama The Outpost. The film’s director, Rod Lurie, has been in a career rut since his ill-advised 2011 remake of Straw Dogs. But he’s bounced back strongly with this mercilessly intense combat drama that depicts the battle of Kamdesh, a true-life 2009 Alamo-like clash in which a small group of American soldiers were attacked in their valley compound by hundreds of Taliban fighters.
The action is brutal and a relentless and, regardless of one’s politics, it’s impossible not to sympathize with these young men cast into extreme harm’s way by politics and fate. Lurie depicts the soldiers’ dilemma unflinchingly — you flinch at the dreadful power of every bullet and barrage, and never lose sense of the looming threat between assaults — while also being engaged by the young cast, several of them members of international cinema royalty: Scott Eastwood (the nearly dead-ringer son of Clint, the ostensible lead and really, really good, for the first time), Milo Gibson (son of Mel) and Will Attenborough (grandson of Richard), alongside Orlando Bloom and Caleb Landry Jones. It’s now due to open July 3.
For the past three months, I don’t imagine there’s been a single cinema open to the public anywhere in the world; for the first time in more than a century, the world’s population has been forced to go cold turkey on seeing a film outside of the home. Still, I’d bet that more people have been consuming more media, including movies old and new, than at any time in world history. We know what some of the beneficiaries of this new captive audience have been, starting with the scandalously addictive guilty pleasure of Netflix’s Tiger King. The March 20 debut of this poor white trashy documentary miniseries was the first thing that awaited a public that couldn’t go out in public anymore.
A far greater commitment was my wife Sasha’s and my decision to re-watch The Sopranos all the way through from the beginning, especially because our writer son Nick was just 1 year old when it started broadcasting and is now stuck at home with us. We’re about a third of the way through it and holds up magnificently, all its virtues intact and undiminished.
The best fast-food nourishment has come courtesy of Schitt’s Creek and Community, both reliably hilarious, and we were all quite taken with the school finance scandal one-shot Bad Education with an excellent Hugh Jackman. Sasha, Nick and daughter Madeleine hung in there with Killing Eve, but I lost interest somewhere between seasons two and three. One episode was all we could take of two highly touted miniseries, Little Fires Everywhere and The Plot Against America, the latter proving particularly disappointing as I rate the book among Philip Roth’s two or three best. And a few minutes of Hollywood were enough to convince me that it was total trash.
As far as feature films are concerned, with nothing new in the offing and Cannes canceled, there was little choice but to turn to the past. Almost at random, we started off with Ridley Scott and writer Callie Khouri’s Thelma and Louise, which is now — gulp — 29 years old. It remains engaging, abounding in juice and sass, but is also a bit arch, insistent and definitely over-extended in the final stretch. And no matter what your sex or persuasion, there’s still no taking your eyes off the frequently shirtless Brad Pitt as a devious drifter in the first film that made anyone take notice of him. After five years of bouncing around Hollywood, all doors were open to him from here on.
I finally caught up with a potent little 1954 B movie I’d wanted to see for years, Suddenly, in which Frank Sinatra, who had recently won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity, played a disturbed Army vet who attempts to assassinate the U.S. president (Eisenhower at the time) at a train stop. It’s taut, sharp and short, at moments overwrought and melodramatic but quite worth checking out. It also provides a wonderful glimpse of Saugus, CA at the time, looking like the small-town USA of your imagination before sprawl set in.
Some films made during the New Hollywood period of the late ’60s/early ’70s that seemed fresh and daring at the time don’t hold up so well today, but one that has, if anything, improved with age is Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love. Centered on a man bemoaning the breakup of his marriage, this original comedy-drama could have easily have tipped into self-indulgence, but Mazursky kept the reins just tight enough and drew wonderfully vibrant performances from Marsha Mason, Susan Anspach and George Segal, who, in retrospect, had an extremely impressive run, 1966-74.
A British film that’s seldom mentioned among the key entries in the cinematic surge of the mid-1960s but struck me strongly the other day was Girl With Green Eyes, the directorial debut by Desmond Davis, nowadays best remembered for Clash of the Titans. The two could scarcely be more different, as Davis’ handling here is tart and mischievously inventive, even if the sharp insights into the sexual adventures of an Irish girl (Rita Tushingham) with a much older man (Peter Finch) were unquestionably provided by one of the great artists of our time, Edna O’Brien, who wrote the script.
Two more stand out. One is David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster, which I’d always considered one of the writer-director’s best films but vaulted even higher in my estimation with a fresh re-viewing. Russell indulged in a precarious high-wire act with this crazy road comedy and pulled it off with a terrifically game cast.
But the jewel of the past three months, something close to a perfect film, is George Cukor’s 1940 The Philadelphia Story. I’d seen it in 16mm in my late teens and appreciated it well enough, but more or less dumped it in with numerous other smarty-mouthed high society romantic comedies with spiffy casts wearing tuxedos and evening gowns.
But watching it again, decades later, the film soars to the upper echelons of sophisticated and wise entertainment, a star among stars, with a cast that simply could not be better or equaled (Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart and Cary Grant) and dialogue that had me dropping my jaw every 30 seconds or so. “The dialogue, the dialogue!” I kept on exclaiming to myself for hours afterward, and for this we have to thank the original playwright Philip Barry, screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart and producer (and future top writer) Joseph L. Mankiewicz who wrote a 50-page treatment for the screen adaptation.