Let’s recap the premise, shall we?
The wife and I don’t let our children watch R-rated movies…which only makes sense given their respective ages. However, that means they’re missing out on some truly amazing films. This is a list (arranged in no particular order) of the movies I’ll be sending with them when they head off to college. A sort of cinematic passage into manhood.
Make sense? Good. Let’s move on.
1. Saving Private Ryan (1998) – Here’s the world’s toughest trivia question: “What Vin Diesel movie was nominated for eleven Academy Awards?” See, now most folks will say the 2005 family comedy, The Pacifier where he plays an ex-Navy SEAL turned male nanny and co-stars opposite a cast of nauseating child “actors” and a sassy pet duck. But surprisingly the answer is….Saving Private Ryan! Wait, you forgot he played the wisecracking Private Caparzo? Well, I guess that’s his fault. Frankly, if I were him there’s two things I’d never stop doing. The first is walking around shirtless and the other is reminding people I was in one of Steven Spielberg’s greatest films. In fact I’d probably look for a way to do both of those things simultaneously…. probably through the use of a non-water soluble peck paint.
Diesel’s appearance is one of several strange casting choices this movie makes. I can remember turning to my wife in the theater at one point and saying: “Wait…did I just see Ted Danson machine gun a bunch of dudes?” Which of course I had. You spend 270 episodes of Cheers waiting for that moment, and when it finally comes you don’t know how to process it. Oh, and do we all remember that Paul Giamatti plays a sergeant in the 101st Airborne Division? Because nothing says hardcore like the dude from Sideways.
If I’m poking fun at this movie it’s only because I love it so. It opens with a recreation of the landings at Normandy that is masterfully staged and goes on for nearly thirty minutes. The fighting (and dying) is depicted with shocking realism. Anyone thinking of joining the military would be well served by watching this movie.
I don’t mind saying that this is one of only two movies I openly cry during. The scene where I always lose it…and I mean at every repeat viewing…is the one where -SPOILER ALERT- the old man, who we discover is actually an elderly Ryan, is visiting the battlefield cemetery with his wife, kids and I think even grand-kids in toe. After searching for a bit he finds Tom Hank’s grave and has a teary-eye moment. Ryan’s wife looks at the grave marker and says something to the effect, “Did you know this guy” and you realize that he’s lived with this woman for over forty years….and he’s never told her the story of what happened. I think that’s true of a lot of veterans. They see and do things that are so horrible they know they can’t possible share it with someone who wasn’t there. Because how could they possibly have the context to understand? So the stuff gets pushed down and internalized. When Ryan looks at his wife and asks if he’s been a “good man,” it’s his survivor’s guilt finally bubbling over. And it always sends me rushing for the Kleenex.
And the other movie that always makes me cry….Titanic. Don’t judge me!
2. The Sixth Sense (1999) – There was a time when M. Night Shayamalan was considered to be a brass plated genius. A master of suspense. A latter day Hitchcock! Today however he’s recognized as just another one-hit-wonder right up there with the guys who sang “I’m Too Sexy For My Shirt”. Back in the closing days of the twentieth century he caught lightning in a bottle when he wrote and directed The Sixth Sense, a film that has to be one of the greatest ghost stories ever. Bruce Willis, who up to this point was known mostly for high testosterone action roles, was cast against type, to play a bookish Child Psychologist trying to help a troubled boy with supernatural problems. The movie is famous for its twist ending which isn’t just a tacked on gimmick. The end actually makes you go back and reevaluate everything you had seen Willis’ character do during the past 106 mintes…and discover that you’ve completely misinterpreted it. All of it. Masterfully done. Sadly Shayamalan was never able to capture that magic again.
But wait! Wasn’t this movie actually rated PG-13, not R?
Yes, Interior Monolog, it was.
Then why is it on this list?
Because of my lovely wife. The Sixth Sense scared the pants off her (only a metaphor, sadly) and lead to about a month and a half of the worst nightmares she’s ever experienced. As far as she’s concerned this movie is too terrifying for any human under voting age to watch. And even then only during daylight hours. In a way my wife’s reaction is a testimony to M. Night Shayamalan’s skill as a director. The fact that a movie with no chainsaws, gore…or really any overt violence whatsoever, still forces you to sleep with the lights on and check under your bed at night is pretty amazing. The scares here don’t come from special effects or cheap tricks. They come from a prevailing atmosphere of fear that’s much more difficult to generate. And for Shayamalan impossible to ever reproduce.
3. The Usual Suspects (1995) – A great bit of modern film noir. Near the end of The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey, in his Oscar-winning performance as crippled con man Roger “Verbal” Kint, says, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” That line is really the subtext for the whole story. The further along the movie goes, the more you realize that not everything is quite what it seems. I love that. Christopher McQuarrie’s script (which also won an Oscar) not only introduced the world to Keyser Soze it coined the phrase “…he was a big fat guy, I mean like Orca fat…” which I spent the next several years trying to crowbar into conversation, along with a number of other unforgettable lines.
The cast is amazing. In addition to Spacey’s fantastic performance you’ve got Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, the comedian Kevin Pollak and a twenty-eight-year-old Benicio Del Toro doing one of the strangest accents I’ve ever heard. What is that? Puerto Rican? Croatian? Klingon? Who knows and who cares. All I know is I couldn’t get enough of it. The ending of The Usual Suspects has a lot in common with The Sixth Sense in that it suddenly changes the context of everything you’ve been watching…in one, long, falling coffee cup moment of clarity.
4. Die Hard (1988) – In 1966 the crime novelist Roderick Thorp wrote a book called “The Detective” about a hardboiled New York cop investigating the death of a gay man. The case soon leads him down a dark rabbit hole into a world of sex, drugs and political corruption. Pretty racy stuff for back in the day. Two years later it was made into a movie staring Frank Sinatra as the titular Detective Joe Leland. It went on to become one of the highest grossing films of 1968 and one of the strongest box-office hits of the singer/actor’s career.
Um…what’s this have to do with Die Hard?
I’m getting to that. In the mid 1970’s Roderick Thorp saw the now famous Irwin Allen disaster movie The Towering Inferno and later that evening had a dream of seeing a man being chased through a building by other men with guns. He’d been working on a sequel to “The Detective” for some time and decided to incorporate that idea into his new book…which he titled, “Nothing Lasts Forever”.
Objection, Your Honor. Relevance?
“Nothing Lasts Forever”, which hit bookstores in 1979, has Detective Joe Leland traveling to Los Angeles to visit his daughter who works in a ginormous skyscraper that serves as the headquarters for the fictious Klaxon Oil Corporation. While he’s there, a German terrorist gang led by a dude named Gruber takes over the entire building. Leland remains undetected and picks off the terrorists one by one, aided from outside the building by an LAPD Sergeant named Al Powell.
Wait…that’s the plot of Die Hard?
That’s my point! Die Hard is the sequel to a Frank Sinatra movie. Or at least it was supposed to be originally. The script spent nearly a decade in development hell and along the way some stuff got changed. His daughter became his wife, Klaxon became the Nakatomi Corporation and Joe Leland’s name was changed to John McClane. Interestingly enough, a clause in Sinatra’s contract for “The Detective” back in 1968 gave him the right to reprise his role in any sequel. That means he was actually the first person offered the lead in Die Hard, which of course he turned down. That turned out to be good news for a certain TV actor named Bruce Willis who would rocket to big screen stardom after this.
Still, if a lifetime of science fiction as taught me anything, it’s that somewhere there’s an alternate universe where a 73-year-old Sinatra swung from a firehouse while shooting an assault rifle and yelling “Yippie kay yay mother…!” Oh, man what a great DVD extra that would make.
Willis is great and Alan Rickman absolutely steals the show as Professor Severus Snape…er…I mean Hans Gruber. Die Hard might be my favorite 80’s action movie. It’s certainly one of the best written. Thank you Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza who did the final adaptation. The characters are well defined and they move logically towards their goals. The scene where our barefoot hero has to walk across a room littered with broken glass….uggg!
Can you think of anything that should be on the list? Any thoughts on what is/is not age appropriate out there? Feel free to shoot me a comment.
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