Post Date Oct 10

Five Great Bill Murray Performances

St. Vincent Movie Review

Bill Murray’s latest film, “St. Vincent,” isn’t exactly one of his greatest. It’s actually kind of mawkish and cringe-inducing. But we’re glass-half-full around here, so we’re going to seize the chance to turn this into a positive.

Murray stars as Vincent, an alcoholic, misanthropic veteran living in a run-down Brooklyn home. He finds his anti-social routine interrupted when a single mom (Melissa McCarthy) and her shy, bullied son (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door. Vincent ends up serving as de factor babysitter, which means taking the kid to the dive bar and the race track — and teaching him life lessons along the way, naturally.

It’s classic Murray curmudgeon mode. It’s also reminiscent of some of his better performances, which I pondered back in 2012 when Murray starred as FDR in “Hyde Park on Hudson.” This was one of the tougher lists to narrow down to five, so I’d love to hear what you guys would pick. Enjoy.

Five Great Bill Murray Performances

By CHRISTY LEMIRE

This week, with the opening of the historical romance “Hyde Park on Hudson,” I finally get to do a Five Most list I’ve been thinking about for a while now: my favorite Bill Murray performances.

His take on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt may not be some of his best work, but it’s an unexpected bit of casting, and it provides a great opportunity to reflect on the fantastically eclectic career he’s put together over the past three-plus decades.

So here are my picks in chronological order. Honorable mention goes to his supporting turn as trash-talking bowling champ Ernie McCracken in the underappreciated Farrelly brothers comedy “Kingpin” (1996), for the sweet hairpiece, if nothing else.

“Caddyshack” (1980): Murray was at the height of his “Saturday Night Live” cult stardom when he gave his enduring portrayal of oddball golf course greenskeeper Carl Spackler in this all-time-great raunchy ’80s comedy. The character is a little grungy and a little dangerous and more than a little off, but also strangely sweet and the source of endlessly quotable lines. Murray has said that people shout Carl dialogue to him all the time as he’s playing golf in real life — “It’s in the hole!” — hoping he’ll recite the words back. That’s how much this movie and this character still matter in our crowded pop-culture universe.

“Stripes” (1981): Murray is at his subversively charming best here in an early starring role as John Winger, a loser who decides to join the Army to be all he can be. He’s silly and sarcastic, confident and quick-witted, so naturally he has a little trouble respecting the authority of Warren Oates’ Sgt. Hulka, the platoon’s “big toe.” But he earns a loyal following, becomes an inadvertent leader and even gets the girl in the end. Murray plays beautifully off old friend Harold Ramis as his straight man, and the whole anarchic vibe from Ivan Reitman, directing one of his best films, is an excellent fit for the comic’s persona during this period.

“Lost in Translation” (2003): Murray earned an Oscar nomination for best actor for his portrayal of Bob Harris, an aging American actor who has schlepped to Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial that will pay him $2 million. He strikes a beautiful balance between lighthearted sarcasm and self-loathing as he forms an undefinable friendship with Scarlett Johansson, playing the bored, young wife of a celebrity photographer. To this day, I can’t listen to “More Than This” by Roxy Music without thinking of Murray’s delicate karaoke rendition in this lovely Sofia Coppola film.

“Broken Flowers” (2005): He’d already appeared with deadpan hilarity in perhaps the best segment of Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes.” Here, Murray stars for Jarmusch as a middle-aged Lothario on a halfhearted quest to visit old lovers in hopes of finding the teenage son he never knew he had. We learn about him — and he learns about himself — through his varied and unpredictable reunions with various ex-girlfriends. It’s yet another world-weary performance from Murray, but each incarnation of this persona reveals richness and shadings; his dramatic work in the later years of his career is just as strong in its own way as the wild comedy was in the beginning.

Post Date Sep 19

Michelle Monaghan’s Five Favorite Female Performances

Fort Bliss Movie ReviewMichelle Monaghan has shown her versatility in a wide variety of films over the years, from comedies like "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and "Made of Honor" to dramas like "Gone Baby Gone" and "North Country" to sci-fi thrillers like "Source Code" and "Eagle Eye."

But she's been at her best when she's had the opportunity to play complicated, flawed and sometimes unlikable women, as she has as the star of the indie drama "Trucker" and in her recent turn as Woody Harrelson's frustrated wife on HBO's "True Detective." In her latest film, "Fort Bliss" -- which opened Friday in limited release and on video on demand -- Monaghan stars as an Army medic who returns from Afghanistan and struggles to reconnect with the 5-year-old son who barely remembers her. While the character can be emotionally closed-off and makes some questionable decisions, Monaghan always keeps her strong and grounded and conveys the sense that she's trying to do the right thing.

So it makes sense that, when asked to pick five favorite female performances, Monaghan also chose actresses who played complicated, flawed and sometimes unlikable women. (Full disclosure: She’s a friend and fellow school mom, although I first met her a few years ago when I interviewed her on stage at Ebertfest after a screening of “Trucker.”)  Here are her choices, in no particular order and in her own words — with thanks from me for taking the time to do it.

Gena Rowlands in "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974): My favorite actress of all time. I don't know if I've ever seen a performance so raw. She cuts me to the core. A role perfectly embodied with such truth. And from someone who lives right next door. What I live for.

Frances McDormand in "Fargo" (1996): I appreciate her comedic physicality in this role. It is so subtle and simple and specific. The way Fran tilts her chin, moves her eyeballs, blinks....I think it's brilliant character work.

Elizabeth Taylor in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966): Range, range and more range! This woman can do it all - and in one scene! It's the most powerful, riveting and bold performance I think I have ever seen. She is an inspiration and example of what it truly means to be "in the moment."

Meryl Streep in "The Bridges of Madison County" (1995): Impossible to choose just one from this goddess but this film is near and dear to my heart as it was shot in Iowa. I love how delicate her performance is. She radiates warmth and longing and desire. I feel everything she feels and that final scene breaks me every time. It's such a poignantly beautiful and heart-wrenching performance.

Every actress in "Steel Magnolias" (1989): This was one of the first movies I ever really emotionally responded to. Upon reflecting on it, I think it may have been my first indication that a career in acting was in my future. My cousins and I would always re-enact these scenes and I would always play Sally Field. I love that all these powerhouse actresses are in one movie. I adore the cemetery scene.

Post Date Aug 14

Revisiting Five Most — Great ’80s Soundtracks

'Guardians Of The Galaxy' Soundtrack Hits No. 1 On Billboard 200

In a very cool bit of music news, the “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtrack has topped the Billboard 200 chart this week. The 12-song mix of late-1960s and early-’70s tunes ranges from David Bowie and The Runaways to 10cc and the Jackson 5, and the inspired way director James Gunn uses this music is a major part of the film’s appealing, off-kilter vibe.

Come and get your love, indeed.

This got me thinking about a Five Most list of great ’80s soundtracks I did back in October 2011, when Craig Brewer’s “Footloose” remake came out.  These are all awesome mixes, as far as I’m concerned. Enjoy.

In honor of `Footloose,’ 5 great ’80s soundtracks

By Christy Lemire 
LOS ANGELES—A huge part of the allure of the original “Footloose” was the soundtrack of catchy, radio-friendly songs it produced back in 1984. “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” “Dancing in the Sheets,” “Almost Paradise” and, of course, the title tune — they were top-40 favorites and mainstays in our boom boxes, and they brought us back emotionally to a movie that was such a cultural touchstone during our formative years.

With the remake of “Footloose” coming out this weekend, it’s a great opportunity to dig through our cassette collection, reminisce about childhood and pick five other great movie soundtracks from the `80s:

_ “Fame” (1980): This movie seemed so racy in its day — the uncomfortable nude scene involving Irene Cara and a creepy photographer, the ballet-dancer abortion — but my exceedingly cool, film-loving mother allowed me to see it when I was just a little girl. The fact that the songs were so high-energy, so poignant, and ultimately so crowd-pleasing is what made this movie acceptable for kids my age. The idea that high school students would bust out and sing “Hot Lunch” in the cafeteria, or stop traffic to rock out to the film’s theme song, was pretty inspiring back then. And of course we all tried to keep up with Cara on “Out Here on My Own,” even though we didn’t have the vocals — or the life experience — to make it work.

_ “Xanadu” (1980): I have vivid memories of listening to this soundtrack — on 8-track, no less — during carpool on the way to school in the morning. At age 8, I basically wanted to be Olivia Newton-John: She was so pretty and seemed so nice and she could sing and roller skate at the same time. Her collaboration here with Electric Light Orchestra — the combination of her pleasant, pitch-perfect soprano voice and their driving, theatrical sound — was, if you’ll pardon the pun, “Magic.” That’s still a gorgeous song, by the way, as is “Suddenly,” Newton-John’s duet with Cliff Richard. My mom repeatedly caught me belting out these songs and the title tune, and while I was embarrassed at the time, I wasn’t alone in my love of this music, as evidenced by the Broadway musical “Xanadu” inspired.

_ “Flashdance” (1983): She’s just a steel-town girl on a Saturday night looking for the fight of her life. Is that so wrong? Rarely do you see a woman who’s a welder by day and dancer by night, but back in the `80s you did in the film that made Jennifer Beals a star and became a pop-culture phenomenon. You know you cut the neck out of more than a few sweatshirts back then. “Flashdance” came out during the early years of MTV when they actually showed videos, and the clip for “Maniac” was in heavy rotation that summer, featuring Beals’ character leaping, spinning, stomping her feet. Director Adrian Lyne made self-aware, sleazy cheese but the music — including the Oscar-winning theme song, sung once again by Cara — made it palatable for a mainstream audience.

_ “Purple Rain” (1984): Every single song in this movie is ridiculously great — and that includes the stuff from Morris Day and The Time. Just try staying in your seat when “Jungle Love” comes on. It can’t be done. As for the Prince soundtrack itself, we wore out the tape, we listened to it so much in junior high school. We made up silly dances to “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star,” and thought we were so daring for not only listening to but singing along with “Darling Nikki.” The movie itself is pretty melodramatic in retrospect, but Prince wrote some of his most indelible songs for it, and even won an Oscar for best score.

_ “Dirty Dancing” (1987): I recall sobbing uncontrollably pretty much from the time Patrick Swayze utters his famous line, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner,” to the time he lifts Jennifer Grey high above his head in the film’s climactic dance number. Yes, I was a dork. But listening to this soundtrack afterward, ad nauseam, took me back to that surge of adolescent emotion. And my dad was happy to endure it because it featured oldies like “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes. Now it seems sort of lame that “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” is used to sell us resort vacations. Back then, though, it really did feel like the time of our lives.

Post Date Jul 19

Revisiting Five Most — Nicolas Cage Performances

An Art show of all Nicolas Cage work in Los AngelesTonight, Chris and I are attending The Nicolas Cage Party Los Angeles, an art exhibit downtown which could be incredibly strange and wonderful (like Cage himself). This got me thinking about a Five Most list I did of his best performances back in January 2011. Which films would you pick?

5 most memorable Nicolas Cage performances

By Christy Lemire

LOS ANGELES — No matter the role — and he’s played a diverse array of them over the past three decades — Nicolas Cage often seems to be teetering on the brink of his own personal, self-inflicted insanity.

Sure, he’s done plenty of forgettable action movies, and lately he’s been at the fore of some family-friendly Disney adventures. Then there was that period in the late ’90s where every movie he made was a drag, and it was a drag watching him in them. But when he’s at his volatile best, it’s an exciting place to be.

This week, with Cage starring in his latest in a series of wheels-off thrillers, “Season of the Witch,” here’s a look at his five most memorable performances. Like the best-of-Jack-Nicholson list recently, this one was hard to narrow down:

_ “Adaptation.” (2002): Cage earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his identical (and fictional) twin brother, Donald, in Spike Jonze’s brilliantly mind-bending comedy. And he seemed to be having the time of his life playing these contrasting roles: the self-loathing and stumped Charlie, as well as the goofy and garrulous Donald. After brooding his way through a series of films leading up to this (“8MM,” “Bringing Out the Dead,” “Windtalkers”), he lets loose again here even while creating two distinct, structured personalities, and his enthusiasm is contagious.

_ “Raising Arizona” (1987): One of the Coen brothers’ earliest, most playful and visually inventive films features a deliriously nutso starring performance from Cage. Hi McDunnough is a loser and ex-con who seemingly can do no right, but he finds a way to make his wife Edwina (Holly Hunter) happy when he steals a baby for her from furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona, the father of quintuplets. Like “Moonstruck,” “Raising Arizona” allows Cage to tap into his unique brand of off-kilter, romantic goofiness. He’s a grubby, lovable cartoon character.

_ “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995): Cage won a best-actor Oscar for playing an alcoholic, failed screenwriter hell-bent on drinking himself to death. He and Elisabeth Shue, excellent as a hardened prostitute, forge a twisted, codependent bond in which neither will interfere with the other’s self-destruction. But Cage never devolves into a drunk cliche; rather, he finds shadings within this lost soul’s deep despair. Director Mike Figgis’ film is intense and unflinching, which just happen to be two of Cage’s strong suits. While the movie itself is often hard to watch, Cage’s performance is mesmerizing.

_ “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” (2009): Here he is in classic crazed mode. Werner Herzog’s wacked-out remake is fueled by a wacked-out performance from Cage, whose character is himself fueled by a steady supply of cocaine and heroin, gambling and violence. His Terence McDonagh is a brazenly corrupt detective, a man infested with dark proclivities. As he descends further into drug-induced mania in post-Katrina New Orleans, we don’t know what’s real and what’s in his mind, and it doesn’t matter. Cage makes it all wild and riveting, and all you can do is watch in awe of how far he’ll go.

_ “Valley Girl” (1983): Cage’s first starring role, the one that put him on the map, and a personal favorite of mine, having grown up in the San Fernando Valley in the ’80s myself. So please, indulge me for a minute. “Valley Girl” came from an era of dumb teenage sex comedies, but it’s got an undeniable sweetness that most of those films lack. Much of that comes from the tender way Cage’s L.A. punk, Randy, courts the stylish and pristine Julie (Deborah Foreman), who lives on the other side of the Hollywood Hills. It’s “Romeo and Juliet” set in Southern California, but in his endearing awkwardness, Cage breathes new life into a familiar figure.

Post Date Jun 22

Revisiting Clint Eastwood’s Favorite Clint Eastwood Films

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Clint Eastwood’s big-screen version of the smash Broadway musical “Jersey Boys” debuted in theaters this weekend. It’s not the best film he’s directed and it’s not the worst. As I said in my two-star review, it’s very glossy and entertaining as it traces the origins of the ’60s pop group The Four Seasons, but it’s also very conventional and safe.

Still, “Jersey Boys” got me thinking about other movies Eastwood has directed over his prolific career, and about Eastwood’s opinion of his own work. Back in October 2010, when “Hereafter” opened, Eastwood was kind enough to take the time to be a guest programmer for me in my weekly Five Most feature. I asked him to pick his five favorite films from all the ones he’s directed. He wanted to pick six. What am I going to do, say no to the man? Here are his choices, in alphabetical order, with his comments and insights in quotes.

_ “Bird” (1988), Eastwood’s biopic on jazz legend Charlie Parker: “It was a nice story about someone whose musicianship I admired so greatly. It was a good script on the analysis of the self-destructiveness of personality: people who insist on sinking into the abyss. Success, being idolized by other musicians — none of it was enough.”

_ “Letters From Iwo Jima” (2006), one of two World War II films Eastwood released that year: “I got the idea of doing it while doing ‘Flags of Our Fathers,’ which is about the American invasion of the island. But the film pointed out what it must have been like to have been one of the defenders of the island — to have been there, and been told not to plan on returning home. What a difficult request to make of people. Also, the Japanese soldiers were facing certain annihilation. They never gave up hope. A lot of them would have loved to have been out of the war and home, just like soldiers from any nation.”

_ “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), starring Hilary Swank as a boxer and Eastwood as her reluctant trainer: “It appealed to me because it was a story regarding family — a search for the daughter he never had a relationship with, and the search for the father that was no longer there for her. They were both sort of reticent, and ended up putting themselves through the most emotional test possible, ending with her desire to be euthanized.”

_ “Mystic River” (2003), about childhood friends reunited by tragedy in an insular part of Boston: “I liked the book and the screenplay by Brian Helgeland. The way sometimes fate deals a bad hand, and it just keeps getting worse and worse, and there is nothing anyone can do. No amount of sane advice can stop the train.”

_ “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), starring Eastwood as a Missouri farmer out for revenge after the Civil War: “It was the first Western I had done in some time since the 1960s Leone movies. It came out in the ’70s when the country was restless about Vietnam. It addressed the divisiveness of war, and how it can tear at heart and soul. But it also dealt with the rejuvenation of a cynic, re-instilling his life with purpose, and with a surrogate family.”

_ “Unforgiven” (1992), with Eastwood as a retired gunslinger taking on one last job: “I loved the ‘Unforgiven’ script. You had to get a ways into it before you knew who was the protagonist and who was the antagonist. Even the villains, with the exceptions of the renegade cowboys, had good points to their character, and had dreams. Little Bill (played by Gene Hackman) just wanted a peaceful life. He believed he was doing the right thing. The film dealt with issues — gun control, and the struggles people have ‘within.’ The hero went against instinct. It was a very rich story, involving loyalty to friends, family and rationalizing deeds. It was a very intelligent script.”

Post Date Nov 15

Five Most — Las Vegas Movies

This weekend, I’m heading to Las Vegas for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon, a blast of a race that takes runners up and down the Strip at night. Lights glitter and flash, bands play every mile or so and the street is packed with runners dressed as Elvis impersonators, brides and grooms (because there’s a run-through chapel along the course, of course) and all manner of showgirl and freak. It’s flat, fast and has a fantastic vibe.

But before I cram a bunch of pasta in my face in preparation, I wanted to share some of my favorite movies set in Las Vegas. It was very hard to pare it down to just five, as the game demands, because so many movies have taken place there. The possibility that anything can happen is just too irresistible, as is the drama that ensues when those dreams of fortune don’t come true. You will notice that nowhere in this list is a film with the word “Hangover” in its title — but I’d love to hear what you guys would choose. And best of luck.

_ “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001): The Steven Soderbergh remake, although the 1960 original starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Angie Dickinson certainly has its swingin’, old-school charms. This is Soderbergh at his most glossy and crowd-pleasing. Who wouldn’t sign up to rob a bunch of casinos with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon? Astounding cast, showy supporting parts, great energy, gorgeous clothes, fun score. If you don’t have an enormous grin on your face while watching this trailer, then you just plain don’t like fun.

 

_ “Swingers” (1996): Young, skinny Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn when no one knew who they were and their crackling banter felt fresh and new. The majority of this stylish and hugely influential early indie from director Doug Liman takes place in a very specific corner of Los Angeles (and helped fuel the whole retro, Daddy-O shtick of the mid-’90s). But the section in which Favreau and Vaughn make a spontaneous road trip to Las Vegas is so crucial (and oft-quoted — “Vegas, baby!”) that I had to include it. I also like this part of the movie because it reflects both the allure of the dreams Vegas offers and the reality of what it’s like to actually live and work there.

 

_ “The Cooler” (2003): An excellent use of William H. Macy’s sad-sack demeanor, unlikely likability and those lonely, blue eyes. Macy stars as Bernie, a “cooler” at the cheesy Shangri-La Casino — a former gambler who exudes such bad vibes that all he has to do is walk by a blackjack or craps table and he turns winners into losers. Maria Bello is lovely as the damaged cocktail waitress who sees something special in Bernie and turns his luck around, and Alec Baldwin is ideally cast as the casino’s bellowing owner, to whom Bernie is in serious debt. This trailer makes the movie look wackier and schmaltzier that it is; if you haven’t seen the film, it’s actually more poignant than this.

 

_ “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995):  Sin City isn’t all fun and games, so this list can’t be, either. Nicolas Cage stars as a fired Hollywood screenwriter who loses all hope and moves to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. There, he meets Elisabeth Shue as the prostitute who unexpectedly falls for him but also enables him. Mike Figgis’ drama is just brutal. It earned Cage the one Academy Award he’s got as well as a nomination for Shue. (If you want a happy movie starring Cage in Las Vegas, check out 1992’s “Honeymoon in Vegas,” which is still kind of adorable.)

 

_ “Showgirls” (1995): Because I can’t help myself. Yes, it’s famously and spectacularly terrible, but you can’t deny the fact that it’s entertaining in its own (unintended) way. (Although there is the school of thought that Paul Verhoeven, Joe Eszterhas and Co. meant for it to be awful.) Nor can you ignore its place in pop culture. I can’t help quoting it whenever I visit Las Vegas, especially if I walk through Caesars Palace — in my Ver-sayce.

 

Post Date Oct 29

Revisiting Five Most — Texas Movies

So I just got back in town after visiting Dallas for my 20-year reunion at Southern Methodist University. I would have posted something over the weekend, but I was too busy cramming queso and Shiner Bock into my grill. Apologies for the absence.

But being there reminded me of a Five Most list I put together before the South by Southwest film festival last year about great movies set in Texas. I could have picked 10 films set in the Lone Star State and not even scratched the surface — which is only fitting, given that it’s like a whole ‘nother country and whatnot. Anyway, hope you enjoy. And Go Mustangs.

5 great films set in Texas

By CHRISTY LEMIRE

— “The Last Picture Show” (1971): Everything about this coming-of-age drama just oozes Texas. Peter Bogdanovich, working from the novel by Larry McMurtry (with whom he co-wrote the script), creates a detailed, lived-in sense of place. High school football, cars, girls, the local movie house — sure, these things mattered elsewhere in the early 1950s. But the sense of lonely, small-town West Texas life depicted here is just so vivid, with its leisurely pace and big skies. Young Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms have an easy chemistry as high school seniors and best friends, and Cybill Shepherd couldn’t possibly be more vibrantly beautiful as the girl they both adore. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including best picture), it won two: for supporting actors Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman.

— “No Country for Old Men” (2007): Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut film, “Blood Simple,” also could have qualified here. But for me, this crime thriller along the Rio Grande is their masterpiece — my pick for the best movie of the 2000’s and one of the five films I selected on our “Movies That Made Us Critics” episode of “Ebert Presents At the Movies.” Working with their usual cinematographer, the great Roger Deakins, the Coens present a haunting, beautifully bleak landscape. They’ve crafted a contemporary Western in which you can feel the heat of the baking sun and the scratch of scrub brush. The dialogue (based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel) is just dead-on in its cadence, color and specificity. And Tommy Lee Jones, who was born and raised in the state, is Texas personified as an aging small-town sheriff on the hunt for a killer. “No Country” won four Oscars including best picture.

— “Friday Night Lights” (2004): Peter Berg’s film completely gets the obsession with high school football in Texas. Then again, he had great source material from which to work: H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s excellent 1990 best-seller of the same name, which captured the fact that this truly is a way of life with eloquence and evocative detail. Literally every store shuts down on Friday nights and the 20,000 people packing into the stadium all have some opinion on how the coach (Billy Bob Thornton) should run the team. This particular team is the Permian High School Panthers in the West Texas city of Odessa, which Berg depicts in stripped-down and bleached-out fashion, making the already parched landscape of oil fields and dust seem even more harsh and lonesome.

— “Slacker” (1991): This movie only could have been made in Austin. It captured a specific kind of youth culture in a specific place and time — when Austin was still weird — and it played a crucial role in the rise of independent cinema in the early 1990s. This early offering from Texas native Richard Linklater, a director who’s become synonymous with Austin’s filmmaking scene (alongside Robert Rodriguez), is a virtually plotless amble around the state’s capital and home of the University of Texas. The seeds for Linklater’s talky, philosophical oeuvre are clearly being planted here. Characters and story strands come and go casually: a couple of guys analyzing “Scooby-Doo” over beers, a young man (Linklater himself) postulating about fate in a cab, a woman carrying a jar that she claims contains Madonna’s pap smear. Nothing happens and everything happens and it’s hypnotically funny.

— “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974): The original, of course — with chain saw as two words, not one — and not the 2003 remake or the even more needless 2006 origin story. One of the earliest films from Austin native and horror master Tobe Hooper, this became hugely influential on the genre, with its grainy, B-movie visuals and slow, silent suspense. And it’s still as frightening today as it was back then. You know the story: Five friends on a road trip fall victim to a family of cannibalistic slaughterhouse workers, led by the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface. Shot in Austin and nearby towns, it provides a sense of isolation that feels peculiarly Texan; the state is so vast that you can imagine anything happening in its many remote pockets. And, of course, there’s all that delicious barbecue.

Post Date Sep 8

Five Most — Back to School Edition

My kid is finally going back to school tomorrow. Finally! I realize that your kids have been back for weeks at this point — at least that’s what all the cute pictures on Facebook tell me. Now, it’s my turn to send young Nic Lemire off to achieve academic greatness in junior kindergarten.

In honor of this proud occasion, here’s a look at five of my favorite movies that take place in schools. Yes, it’s heavy on ’80s films — those were my formative years, full of teased-up bangs and frosted lipstick. Feel free to chime in with your favorites:

_ “Rushmore” (1998): All the greatness of Wes Anderson’s meticulous style was new and fresh and exciting in his second feature film: the detailed production design, the slo-mos, the great ’60s soundtrack. It’s probably still my favorite of his, although I do love “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer was a true original: inventive and obsessive, sophisticated beyond his years while remaining an overgrown child intent on getting his way. The interplay between Schwartzman and Bill Murray as a wealthy Rushmore Academy parent is hilarious and heartbreaking, as each recognizes in the other a kindred, lonely spirit.

_ “The Breakfast Club” (1985): One of my favorite movies ever and perhaps the late, great John Hughes’ best, although “Sixteen Classics” is just as much of a quotable classic. It’s a toss-up. It’s got that quintessential Brat Pack cast — Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy — it’s full of recognizable high school figures and it honestly depicts the teen angst that plagues us all at some point. When I was a teenager, I felt like “The Breakfast Club” spoke to me (even though I was never really any of the five “types”). Now that I’m an adult, I appreciate the film more for its ability to morph seamlessly and effortlessly from comedy to drama to eventual uplift.

_ “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955): The prototype for all teen-angst movies. I have fond memories of watching “The Breakfast Club” with my mother; in response, she introduced me to this, the definitive youth-in-revolt movie of her era. The role of Jim Stark, the brooding and mysterious new kid in town, is of course, the ultimate James Dean character — it’s the one that defined his brief career and seems  all the more tragic given that he died in a car crash at 24 just a month before its release. Blah blah blah, you know why “Rebel Without a Cause” matters. Please enjoy this decidedly old-school, melodramatic trailer.

_ “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982): This movie seemed so racy to me in its day — it came out the summer I turned 10 years old — and I’m still taken by the honesty of its dialogue and its depiction of teenage sexuality. One of the many beauties of Cameron Crowe’s script is that it features characters who talk the way kids really talk. I suspect “Fast Times” couldn’t be made today and remain intact, at least not in big-studio form; a character has an abortion, for example, and the film never judges her for it. It’s also such a great time capsule in terms of its young, up-and-coming cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Judge Reinhold, Forest Whitaker and an awesome Sean Penn in one of the defining roles of his career as super-stoner Jeff Spicoli.

_ “Heathers” (1989): It looks very of-its-time with its big hair and shoulder pads. But the specificity of its dialogue and the daring darkness of its humor make Michael Lehmann’s comedy a high school classic. There are so many great lines in this film — most coming from the bitchy and sadistic Heather No. 1 — I don’t even know where to begin quoting. Young Winona Ryder and Christian Slater (whose Jack Nicholson shtick seemed novel back then) had crackling chemistry. But like “Fast Times,” “Heathers” could never be made the same way today, as evidenced by the end of this clip alone.

Post Date Sep 3

Five Most — James Franco Performances

Last night was “The Comedy Central Roast of James Franco,” with comedians and friends including Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Sarah Silverman and Nick Kroll tooling on the actor for his eclectic filmography and for just being an odd dude in general. That got me thinking about my favorite Franco performances. Here are five of them, in no particular order — feel free to chime in with yours:

_ “Spring Breakers” (2013): Franco is just out-of-his-mind great in director Harmony Korine’s candy-colored cautionary tale about girls gone wild. As a wannabe gangsta rapper named Alien (pronounced a-LEEN), he’s an amalgamation of white-trash Florida stereotypes with his cornrows, shiny grill and flashy convertible. But he’s also lonely and needy, and in a group of bikini-clad college girls, he thinks he’s found his soul mates. It’s a showy, wonderfully weird performance, but Franco also finds the vulnerability beneath the bravado.

 

_ “127 Hours” (2010): Danny Boyle’s claustrophobic thriller provided Franco with a tour-de-force performance and earned him an Academy Award nomination for best actor — the same year he co-hosted the Oscar ceremony in ignominious fashion alongside Anne Hathaway. Based on the true story of Aron Ralston, the hiker who had to resort to drastic tactics to dislodge himself from a giant boulder in the Utah desert, “127 Hours” allows Franco to show every bit of his range: his gift for effortless comedy, which he showed off in a scene-stealing performance in the next film on this list, as well as the sort of subtle but deep despair earned him a Golden Globe and made him a star in the 2001 “James Dean” TV movie.

 

_ “Pineapple Express” (2008): David Gordon Green’s stoner romp allowed Franco to display his comic gifts, which we hadn’t seen much of previously at this point. As an affable and earnest pot dealer named Saul, Franco has terrific chemistry with Rogen, who plays the uptight customer with whom he gets tangled in criminal shenanigans. Franco is sweetly goofy, prone to non sequiturs but instantly likable. The film is at its best when it’s about these two opposites getting to know each other by talking about absolutely nothing.

 

_ “Milk” (2008): It’s Sean Penn’s movie, of course. Penn’s mesmerizing performance as Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco politician and gay rights activist, earned him the second of his two Academy Awards for best actor. But Franco, as Milk’s boyfriend and first real love — the much younger Scott Smith — is absolutely lovely. Supportive and romantic but also conflicted, Franco is as comfortable here in an understated but crucial role as he was playing an amiable pot dealer earlier in the year in “Pineapple Express.”

 

_ “James Dean” (2001): A TV movie, but we’re going to count it because it’s the role that made him a star and defined his early career. Franco famously immersed himself to play the mysterious and doomed screen legend, and indeed captures his beautiful and brooding persona. Franco’s uncanny resemblance to Dean went a long way toward making him that much more believable in the role. “James Dean” may have the by-the-numbers feel of a made-for-TNT film, but Franco goes beyond sheer mimicry to find the depth within this iconic figure.

Post Date Aug 17

Five Most — Clunky Movie Titles

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a gorgeous film — definitely one of my favorites this year — but it has an unfortunately clunky title. I realize it’s intended to harken to a time, a place, a mood. But I hope it’s not off-putting to potential viewers, because it’s very much worth seeking out.

Still, this got me thinking about other clunky movie titles. It was hard to narrow it down, but here are five (give or take) that just clang. Feel free to chime in with your favorites:

_ “Nights in Rodanthe” (2008):  Fine folks of Rodanthe, N.C.: I’m sure your tiny coastal town is a charming and lovely place, offering a quiet and quaint getaway for visitors of all ages. But as part of a movie title (or the title of the Nicholas Sparks book that inspired it), Rodanthe (pronounced roh-DAN-thee) does not exactly roll off the tongue. Richard Gere and Diane Lane find love later in life under contrived circumstances when they’re trapped together in a beachfront inn. And wouldn’t you know it? There’s a hurricane on the way.

_ “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (2006): We also would have accepted “Precious: Based on the Novel `Push’ by Sapphire” (2009). At least with “Borat,” though, the clunky title is an intentional part of the gag — a reflection of the multicultural cluelessness of Sacha Baron Cohen’s goodnatured, roving-journalist character. The novelty of Baron Cohen’s undercover gonzo shtick was still firmly in place with this film; it’s been all downhill from there. Please enjoy this painfully awkward (and hilarious) extra scene from the movie. I feel so bad for this poor, unsuspecting massage therapist.

_ “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007): I love this movie so much, but man, is that title a mouthful. (It’s also the name of the novel that inspired it.) As in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” Casey Affleck plays an outlaw with an old-West sensibility and earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in the process — he is the Robert Ford at the end of that title opposite Brad Pitt’s Jesse James. It also earned a nomination for the great Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography; the lighting in the nighttime train robbery alone deserved it. The rambling title is very much a part of the film’s mythology.

_ “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” (1984): It almost pains me to choose this one, because sticking the words “Electric Boogaloo” in the title of any sequel just makes it that much better. But really, if we’re being honest with ourselves, what is an electric boogaloo anyway? Is it a state of mind, like nirvana? This sequel to “Breakin'” actually came out in the same year as the original movie — seven months later, to be exact. But when an evil developer threatens to bulldoze the local recreation center — and only a team of plucky, determined breakdancers can stop him — there’s no time to lose in telling that story.

_ “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?” (1964): This one is kind of awesome, though, and very much in keeping with the tone of the film. Beatniks and strippers and gypsies and the undead — and it’s a musical! What’s not to like? The late, prolific cult director Ray Dennis Steckler, who stars under the pseudonym Cash Flagg, also was responsible for 1971’s “The Mad Love Life of a Hot Vampire” and 1979’s “The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher.” This is B-movie heaven, with its surreal images and sparkly costumes. It’s considered one of the worst films ever made, but that’s what makes it weirdly wonderful.