Saturday Night Fever
How can you not like this one? The whole movie rides effortlessly along the seam between guilty-pleasure cheesy entertainment and cinematic glory. The music is cheesy pop but brilliant cheesy pop. The star is a television star in the tradition of David Cassidy but revealed in this movie to be a really good dramatic actor. The plot is a hackneyed dance contest and a hackneyed struggle to overcome class. But the sturdy story does the job: the local dancing talent isn't bad at all. The two-bit pals perfectly set off the star power of the king of the dicso, and the group's desperation is beautifully illustrated in a harrowing action sequence on the Verrizano Bridge . It's a great film from talented, unpretentious director John Badham.
Friday Night Lights
As a football fan, the topic - football is life itself for small-town boys in West Texas - interested me a lot, and I bought the book. But I didn't even get half way through. The kids just didn't come off the page and become three-dimensional people for me. But boy do they in the movie. The boys and the coach really mean it on the field and their home lives are tough too, with embarrassing atypical families, and not a cliche in sight. The action is extremely well-filmed; the football is riveting. The no-stars casting and naturalistic dialog make it feel real, and it's very affecting. And then Tim McGraw, like fellow country musician Dwight Yoakam did in Sling Blade, delivers a tough dose of redneck authenticity.
Dog Day Afternoon
Listen to how people talk in this movie. Look at the rubber in the legs of that pizza man, excited to get onto the evening news, for delivering a pie to bank robbers at work. Look at how a gathering of earnest New Yorkers, some of whom have strayed off the courses prescribed for them, but all of whom are trying to do the humane thing, push each other into impossibly difficult circumstances on a hot day in a tense time on the busy dirty streets of striving, thriving, jiving Brooklyn. Sidney Lumet keeps things ultra-tense, but you get some levity too. I like a little levity.
Broadway Danny Rose
Woody Allen transitioned from great stand-up to funny comedy movies in the late 1960s and 1970s. Annie Hall, Manhattan, and others mixed in poignant commentary, took on some big questions, and wowed the critics, but for me, they weren't great movies. They didn't have plots, drama, characters you cared much about, and they showed a cloying insular world. I became a big fan of Woody's with Broadway Danny Rose. The Danny character is an inspired exaggeration of the characters Woody played in previous movies. He's a joker, a mannered little man, trapped by who he is, nervous, elaborately polite, forever trotting out the trusty conversation starters, and in an original twist, he's an ultra-loyal talent agent, delivering well-intentioned, half-way capable representaion to a group who brings new meaning to the word motley. With an elaborate plot, a nutty mass of blue-collar/gray-market Italian-American characters including a tough tawkin' Mia Farrow, it's the story of a man who can't help being a sentimental fool and his so-called friends, who can't not be who they are either. The movie is framed in a conversation among a group of comics reminiscing about Danny Rose, the legend. The device adds a timeless nostalgic quality to the story, as does the use of black and white film, although the cars and the clothes are pointedly tacky and contemporary.
Please don't lump this one with The Towering Inferno. Inferno isn't terrible but it feels like a sequel; you can smell a formula afoot right from the start. Poseidon is a big mainstream Hollywood movie too, with its alotment of big stars, has-beens, and up and coming cuties. The difference between the first and second disaster movie is huge though, like the difference between Rocky and Rocky II or Star Wars and Revenge of the Jedi. The actors show it when something big is being taken on for the first time; you can see the rage in their faces and the audience can feel it in their spines. I don't think Gene Hackman is going through the motions when he preaches to newly arrived passengers on a cold and overcast day at the beginning of the film or when he's leading his little party through the pits of hell at the end. Shelley Winters is one of the great actresses of the 20th century and she left it on the field in this one.
On board ship is the world, including a priest, a cop, and a hooker (no joke), plus old people and children. The ship is a marvel, just as you'd guess. But nature has other plans for our little microcosm! The test is harrowing, and the response to it invokes great themes: perseverance, faith, intelligence, sacrifice. It feels historic. It feels biblical. It's a big, juicy drama with a great cast.