Well, there’s nothing quite like a pandemic to put things in perspective, is there? I don’t see how the country — and the world — will be able to recover from the financial loss the coronavirus is causing, not to mention the impact culturally, socially, and on everything else. I doubt that we’ll ever return to the “normal” we knew, whatever that was. Interesting, isn’t it? It’s like nothing else is happening except this. I guess, basically, nothing is. Except, of course, life goes on. What does that mean for someone like me, who is used to seeing movies, mostly in theaters, all the time? It means you go online, obviously. Here’s how I got there.
By the first of March coronavirus stories were all over the news, but movie theaters, museums, and restaurants had yet to shut down. I couldn’t quite imagine that happening, not really. On Tuesday, March 3, the Museum of Modern Art was kicking off a Daniel Craig retrospective with Casino Royale (2006), his first film as James Bond. Craig was in New York City to host Saturday Night Live that weekend, and would be at MoMA to introduce the screening. I definitely wanted to be there for that. It turned out that he didn’t simply introduce Casino Royale, but was interviewed before the film for a full 30 minutes by MoMA’s Chief Film Curator, Rajendra Roy. It was great. And Casino Royale was better than I’d remembered. Though maybe I was more disposed to like it since Craig was actually there. (I was in the second row and took these shots.)
The next day or the day after that I read that the release of Craig’s new Bond film, No Time to Die, had been moved from April 19 to just before Thanksgiving in November. It was the first big film to pull out, but wouldn’t be the last.
Over a week later, on Thursday, March 12, I was back at MoMA to see Road to Perdition (2002), a film directed by Sam Mendes with Daniel Craig in a supporting role. Before the film, I heard someone in the audience say that Film at Lincoln Center was cancelling all screenings until further notice as of 5:00 pm that day. This meant Nancy and I were going to miss three films in their Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series that we had tickets to that weekend. I think the Metropolitan Museum of Art had already shut down. As it turned out, MoMA closed up the next day, which meant Road to Perdition would be the last film I’d see there for a while.
During the Casino Royale showing at MoMA the previous week, I’d felt a sore throat coming on. It only lasted a couple of days, but then became more of a head cold. I saw my doctor the next Monday, who said he didn’t think it was any more than that. I asked about going to movie theaters. While he didn’t flat out tell me not to do go, he did say that people were recommended not to. I still wasn’t scared enough, so I went to films in theaters the next five days before closures put an end to that. (I’m fine now, just more careful and appropriately scared.)
On Friday the 13th I saw The Hunt on its opening day at the AMC Lincoln Square multiplex. I liked it a lot. The Hunt was only in theaters for three days. By Monday, AMC theaters had closed, along with all the other theaters.
On Saturday I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright at Film Forum, partly because I’d not seen it before, but mainly because I didn’t know how much longer they’d be open. The first hour of the film is pretty good, the rest of it not so much. But I was glad I went, because they closed the next day. That’s the last film I’ve seen in a movie theater to date.
Before this I’d frequently streamed films on our flat screen or my laptop, so it was more of a psychological adjustment than anything else to start doing it exclusively. Nothing beats seeing movies in a theater, but this is better than not seeing them at all. That Saturday night I opted for something I knew would satisfy, Three Days of the Condor, directed by Sidney Pollack in 1975. I’ve seen it a bunch of times over the years. It always works, except for the few parts that don’t, and I’m willing to ignore those. It has a distinctly 70s vibe, and great performances by Robert Redford and especially Max von Sydow and John Houseman. (Three Days of the Condor can be streamed on Netflix.)
A day later I watched Layer Cake, directed by Matthew Vaughn in 2004. I hadn’t been able to see this in MoMA’s Daniel Craig series, which had been cut short by more than a week. I’d not seen it before, but had been told by a friend that it was very good, and it is. Craig’s performance in this film is reportedly what got him seriously considered to be the new James Bond. Layer Cake is a very British gangster film with an excellent cast, made with lots of flash and polish, snap and violence. (You can see it on Amazon Prime.)
Staying in the mood for more Daniel Craig, a couple days later I watched Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015) five days after that. Both are directed by Sam Mendes. If Spectre disappoints at all, it’s only because Skyfall is so strong, easily one of the best Bond films in the entire series. (Both are available on Amazon Prime.)
In between those Bond films I saw some other stuff, starting off with The Bourne Legacy (2012), co-written and directed by Tony Gilroy. It has the challenge of being a Bourne film without Jason Bourne, but I think it’s pretty good. Jeremy Renner is strong as an alternative Bourne. Rachel Weisz is also very good. The scene in which Zeljko Ivanek methodically guns down everyone he can in a research lab is perhaps a little too close to reality. The Bourne Legacy may not be on par with the Bourne films directed by Paul Greengrass, but I like it and find it very watchable. (Available on Amazon Prime.)
Next up was The Other Guys, a comedy directed by Adam McKay in 2010. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg star as mismatched cop partners, losers who get no respect in their precinct. It’s very funny for the most part. What had stayed with me in the 10 years since I first saw it was a demented debate between the two as to who would win in a fight between a tuna and a tiger. Their commitment to the premise is impressive. (The Other Guys can be seen on Netflix.)
My choices since embarking on this post-theater journey have been, with the exception of the Daniel Craig films, basically impulsive. I ran across the following two John Wayne films in a book about Hollywood films made in Mexico, and thought, “Let’s see those!” In almost all cases, the films I’ve been watching are ones I’ve seen before. I want known quantities, kind of a comfort-food approach. Anyway, I watched The War Wagon (Burt Kennedy, 1967) and The Sons of Katie Elder (Henry Hathaway, 1965). I’d remembered The War Wagon as being better, but it’s not so good. It’s watchable for Kirk Douglas’ enjoyable performance, but not much else. Katie Elder is a better film, but still not great, though Wayne and Dean Martin play well together. At the time of their release, you could have added to the experience by getting these comic book versions. (Both films are available on Amazon Prime. You’re on your own finding the comic books.)
I next watched two films from one of my favorite directors, Steven Soderbergh, Contagion and Haywire, both released in 2011. Contagion is currently trending for obvious reasons. I’m not sure it will necessarily lower one’s anxiety level, but there is something reassuring in that the characters in the film beat the virus in the end. Of course, real life doesn’t always have movie endings. Haywire is a rush, a very tightly put together thriller with a great cast. (Contagion is on Amazon Prime, Haywire is on Netflix.)
We’re almost to the present date. Last Thursday I watched a recent film I hadn’t seen when it was in theaters, and hadn’t particularly wanted to. Now I know why. This was Midway, directed by Roland Emmerich, a big-budget action epic about a pivotal sea battle in the Pacific during World War II. Something felt very out of place about this film, like we should have seen it in the 1970s. In fact, we did see it in the ’70s — 1976 to be exact.
That Midway was directed by Jack Smight, with Charleton Heston and an all-star cast. It was about same battle, though perhaps less historically accurate. It had the distinction of being the second of only four films to be “…presented in ‘Sensurround’, a special low-frequency bass speaker setup consisting of four huge speakers loaned by distributors to select theaters showing the film. This system was employed only during certain sequences of the film, and was so powerful that it actually cracked plaster at some movie theaters.” Luckily we were spared that in the new version. Besides the heavy CGI video-game combat graphics in the new film, I was very put off by Ed Skrein, the actor who had the lead role. I don’t know why exactly, just something about him. You can see for yourself on Amazon Prime.
By the way, I realize that with well over 1,000 DVDs and Blu-ray discs in the Ted Hicks Memorial Cinema Library, I don’t have to limit myself to what’s available on Netflix and Amazon Prime. I think I have to get more used to this new reality before I can begin to know how best to use my time and resources. Watching some classics, for one thing.
That said, the next film I watched was Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018), written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie. This is the latest in the series lead by Tom Cruise, reportedly doing most of his own stunt work, all of which seem quite insane. I’d seen it before and like it a lot. It’s very well made, if utterly preposterous. An especially good scene takes place in a large men’s room with Cruise and another agent, played by Henry Cavill, up against a seemingly unstoppable adversary. It’s bone-crunching, without Cruise or Cavill apparently any the worse for wear when it’s over. It’s also worth noting that the entire encounter plays without a music score, which is very effective. (This film is available on Amazon Prime.)
On Sunday I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), directed by Tomas Alfredson, based on the novel by John le Carré. I remember not liking it when I saw it nine years ago. I was comparing it unfavorably to the six-hour BBC version in 1979 with Alec Guinness as George Smiley. A two-hour feature couldn’t begin to have the detail of a six-hour production. True enough, but I didn’t have any reservations this time around. It’s very good. (Available on Amazon Prime.)
Yesterday we watched Ron Howard’s documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years (2016). It’s terrific, joyful, and just perfect for these times. (Available on Amazon Prime.)
That brings us up to today, and I’m writing this piece instead of watching a film. Maybe later.
In the meantime, I have to say that what I miss as much as anything is Film Forum popcorn. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one. This is really great popcorn. I can’t wait to have it again.
Everyone be safe! — Ted Hicks