Picking up where I left off, I continue my suggested additions to Joseph W. Smith’s book The Best Movies You Never Saw should he publish a second volume.
I call this particular collection of personal recommendations the “mentor movies” where each focuses its story on a sort of father-son relationship even if there is no biological connection present. That’s not to say this the only reason to watch these tiles; it’s merely the connecting thread between them.
This is the 1986 release, definitely not the later Britney Spears star vehicle that only affirmed she’s not an actress. In this Mississippi Delta Blues variation on the Robert Johnson legend of making a deal with the devil for musical talent, Ralph Macchio plays Eugene, a Julliard student whose love of the blues gets really triggered when he discovers a former member of Johnson’s band, Willie Brown (played by the ever-reliable Joe Seneca), alive and in New York. As the two make their way to the famous crossroads referred to in the title, the younger musician learns about the blues as well as racism, love, and the connection between the three.
There are some great minor characters presented in this with Allan Arbus playing Eugene’s classical instructor with a sinister quiet that seethes with elitism and Joe Morton as one of Hell’s cocky demons.
Even if you don’t care for the story, this film is worth it for the music, which was assembled by Ry Cooder and features a closing guitar duel between Eugene and Satan’s latest devotee played by guitar wizard/giant Steve Vai.
Another movie from the eighties, Dragonslayer marked Disney’s first venture into a more adult market at a time when a slew of “sword and sorcerer/dungeons and dragons” stories were hitting the market. However, this story, which stars stalwart Ralph Richardson as the sorcerer and a young Peter MacNichol as his apprentice, offers much more than that storyline although that is certainly a deft aspect of the film.
The film was soon adapted to a special edition Marvel issue.
A king makes a deal with a dragon in the region and sacrifices virgins in order to prevent attacks on his subjects and, more importantly, his kingdom. A small cadre tries to conquer the beast with the assistance of the aging sorcerer while, at around the same time, a Christian preacher arrives to denounce the dragon as a Satanic beast. So, besides the mentor-mentee story along with the inevitable love story that develops over the course of the narrative, this film presents an interesting view of religion replacing legend on an almost Wagnerian order.
The film captures its Middle Ages era with muted colors and, if not darkness, a constant gloom. Its musical score from Alex North is likewise a powerful aspect of this movie, but the special effects provided by designer Tom Spina are the most noteworthy. When this movie first came out, I insisted it was the best dragon yet devised, and Reign of Fire owes a real thank-you to this film for the inspiration behind its own depiction—even though one of that movie’s effects guys insisted in the bonus features that they had come up with something completely unique. (Shame on you).
The only title from this group not from the eighties is the 2000 story with Jim Caviezel as a New York City detective whose personal life is on the skids when an evening on his father’s old ham radio set provides the ultimate night of “skip” and allows him to communicate with his long-deceased father, a firefighter portrayed by Dennis Quade. As the son tries to set things right, the movie offers a combination of The Butterfly Effect and Looper in a story that shows how even the best of intentions can go awry.
Kick in a decades-old unsolved case involving a serial killer, and this movie pops with action while studying the father-son relationship from an entirely different perspective.
MY FAVORITE YEAR
Returning to 1982, My Favorite Year is great for all the right reasons. Richard Benjamin directs a nostalgic look at 1954 New York City through the eyes of Benjamin Steinberg, a young television writer for the King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade, an exemplar of the comedy shows of that era. Trying to escape his roots, he goes by the name Benjy Stone.
Introducing Mark Linn-Baker as Benjy, the story hinges on his sudden assignment as caretaker for Allan Swann (Peter O’Toole, in what may be his greatest role after Lawrence of Arabia), an alcoholic movie star appearing as the show’s special guest.
As Benjy tries learning how to be a man from his movie idol, in the end it is difficult to discern who teaches whom. Meanwhile, O’Toole shows his comedic chops while balancing the bravado and pathos of Swann.
While the movie is a cohesive narrative, many of its scenes stand as perfect vignettes, two featuring cameo appearances by Cameron Mitchell as a mobster enraged at his satirical portrayal on the show and the other with Gloria Stuart (the elderly Rose from Titanic) in a nightclub scene that provides insight into Swann’s character.
The movie has a slew of such moments, especially when Benji is pressured to bring Swann to dinner to meet his mother (Lainie Kazan) and an uncle (Lou Jacobi) who seems beyond embarrassment. The evening becomes the ultimate culture clash.
The rest of the cast is equally wonderful with Bill Macy as the ever-set upon head writer and Joseph Bologna delivering a near-perfect portrayal of the mercurial King Kaiser.
By the way, “near-perfect” is an apt phrase for this film that replicates both the fifties and live television in a script by Norman Steinberg (wonder who he represents?).
The only problem with this movie was timing. It was released around the same time as Officer and a Gentleman and E.T., so it got buried at the box office by those two.
However, this film could easily be compared to comedies such as Bringing Up Baby or The Odd Couple and is well worth a viewing.