A Few Good Films

(Part of my Just-for-Fun pages)
James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Last revised: August 31, 2010


There should always be a little bit of room for fun

These pages are where I put all those links that I think are entertaining or interesting, but that do not fit well into other areas of my web site. I'm open to suggestions for new links.
Friends and family with web sites
Literature, music and more
Things I find amusing - good aimless surfing
Favorite recipes and a few products
Things I care about

First, some general stuff about film.

NetflixI love watching good films, and since the advent of Netflix I watch close to 100 per year, mostly with my favorite fellow film buff, Pam. I end up talking about films a lot, and I assign films in some of my geography classes. Thanks to my student Liz, who recommended that I post this page to share what I consider must-see films of many kinds. Among the "genre" tabs on Netflix (available at the top-left of any screen) is a "foreign" group that will suggest foreign films to the individual user and that also has sub-categories of foreign films, including various themes and a few specific languages.

IMDbThe Internet Movie Database is the ultimate resource on movies. It is searchable by cast, director, location, and much more. IMDb is a great place to look up details of any of the films or film people I mention below. If you want something to keep next to the DVD player, the best print resource I know of is the Videohound's Golden Movie Retriever. It is updated annually; even though we use IMDb a lot, we buy the Retriever every few years.

Because the U.S. has the world's largest film industry, many North Americans know little about foreign films. The 1-World Festival of Foreign Films is an online directory of the films of almost fifty countries, including reviews and VHS/DVD ordering information for films that might be very difficult to find otherwise.

Even better than seeing these films on video is seeing them on the big screen. Cable Car Cinema & Cafe in Providence, RI shows many foreign films and other films that might be too sophisticated to show up at the local Cineplex or Blockbuster. We enjoy not only the selection of films but also the comfy little love seats for those who arrive early enough to snag one and the great old blues singer who performs for tips before some of the films. Cappuccino fans will like the cafe side, which has fair-trade coffee and free WiFi. For a complete arts experience, visit Cable Car during a Providence Waterfire event. It takes some planning, but if you arrive early you can park near the cinema.

Now, some films I like and stories about them, in no particular order.

For some of the artists and directors on this page, I am a "completist," willing to watch anything by the artist in question, and well on my way to doing so. Michael Moore, Jack, Winona Ryder (forgiving her for wasting my time with Boys and Autumn in New York), Madonna (terrible movies for the most part, except Evita, but must see them anyway), Pedro Almodovar (of course), and Barbra Streisand. Regarding the latter, Pam insists that I married her only because Babs was not available, but I swear this is not true. She is simply a flawless performer and director (see Yentyl) -- and she is a year older than my parents!

Michael Moore is not always fair and his sarcasm can annoy even those who agree with him, but nearly he always has his facts straight. And sometimes his sarcasm is just what the country needs. I was introduced to Moore through Roger & Me, which chronicles his heroic efforts to talk with General Motors CEO Roger Smith about his complicity in the economic destruction of Flint Michigan, and indeed of much of the working class in the upper Midwest. When I passed through Flint in 2005, I was astonished to find that it looked exactly as Moore had described more than a decade earlier. Few viewers of Roger & Me are aware of the short sequel. Its title is derived from a question that the rabbit seller from the first film asks her customers: Pets or Meat? Although no rabbits were harmed in the making of the film, they document very real harm that has befallen the people of Flint.

Our fixation on Winona Ryder came long before her shoplifting problems, with the release of Heathers, a dark comedy about teenage suicide. About a decade before the term helicopter parents emerged to describe our society's perpetual hand-wringing over its youth, this brilliant film -- whose Gestalt I would trace back to the Who's "Teenage Wasteland" -- took a huge risk by poking fun both at teen culture and at the broader culture's inability to cope with its teens. Christian Slater seems to have gone to Jack Nicholson school a bit too deeply in preparing for his role as the homicidal teen rebel, but Ryder's performance is irresistible she probes and questions her relationships to him and to the epynomous girls of the title. This is one of the few movies we saw in a theater when we were graduate students, when we somehow got ten bucks ahead on our monthly budget. The experience was priceless, as we were the only audience members to laugh (maybe cackle is a better word) at a joke on homophobia in Ohio. (The same joke would work on just about any state, so please don't be offended if you are a forward-looking Buckeye: I know there are plenty of you!) As mentioned above, I've seen a lot of Noni's films. Of these, Reality Bites is probably the one most similar to Heathers. Others I have most enjoyed include Night on Earth, Great Balls of Fire. and of course Dracula.

I wish everyone who opposes marriage for same-sex couples would take the time to watch two movies that provide some valuable insight. If These Walls Could Talk 2 is a series of stories that take place in a single home over a period of several decades. One of the stories describes an elderly couple of women who suffer from a lack of legal protection when the woman becomes ill and her partner of many years is not allowed to care for her, and becomes destitute when her family does not honor the couple's inheritance wishes. Mr. & Mrs. Loving is the true story of the couple whose marriage became the test case for ending the laws that many states once had against mixed-race marriages. The Lovings (this was their real name) had a marriage that was far from ideal, but they wanted and deserved to be together, and the law would not allow it. The film is especially poignant to me because it is set very close to the time and place where I was an infant in northern Virginia.

The CorporationThe Corporation is an essential film for understanding a whole host of the world's problems. Based on the book by Joel Bakan, this 2.5-hour documentary is not about a single corporation, but rather about the invention of the corporation as a legal construct that conveys rights without responsibilities. The film spends two hours demonstrating how the power of corporations inevitably snowballs and how the morality of individuals in a corporation may have little to do with the moral outcomes of its actions. Once this case has been made thoroughly, a quick-pace sequence of ways that individuals can begin to change the dynamic and lessen the power of corporations. Notice that the icon of the film has both a demon's tail and an angel's halo: it is because the corporation is without a conscience -- its very nature allows it to do things for good or ill that none of its individual members would do alone.
Without comment, here is an unsorted list of films that I can recommend, mostly gleaned from our NetFlix archives. I share this list with my Geography of the Global South students, for the insights and images they provide of developing countries. It should be kept in mind that most are works of fiction or historical fiction, so they should not be taken too literally regarding conditions in any given country. They are best enjoyed in combination with a little independent research.

Blood Diamond
Last King of Scotland
Hotel Rwanda
Chocolat (1988)
Chocolat (2000)
Like Water for Chocolate
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights
Mojados: Through the Night
El Norte
Al Otro Lado (2004)
Al Otro Lado (2005)
Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'Que Tu Lo Sepas!
Motorcycle Diaries
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
End of the Spear
Men with Guns
Milagro Beanfield War
Cidade de Deus / City of God
Bus 174
South Pacific (1958)
I am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth
Maria Full of Grace
The Holy Girl
Casa de los Espiritus (House of the Spirits)
Kiss of the Spiderwoman
Born into Brothels
Slumdog Millionaire
In the Time of the Butterflies
Monsoon Wedding
The Charcoal People

The Darjeeling Limited
As mentioned above, I watch Jack as much as I can -- Jack Nicholson, that is. He plays characters that are stubborn, as I can sometimes be, but I think I am mainly attracted to him as an opposite. He masterfully plays guys who are crude, misogynist, and piggish -- but also smart, witty, and earthy. Jack is also a hard worker, and I'll probably never see all of his films unless I outlive him by a good bit. The place to start, of course, is Five Easy Pieces -- with a double-entendre title and a complicated protagonist. The film has several memorable scenes -- one involves toast and another involves Sally Struthers, Jack Nicholson, and a door frame.

Other favorites include Easy Rider, A Few Good Men (You can't handle the truth!), Carnal Knowledge, Chinatown, The Witches of Eastwick (he is the devil himself), and Hoffa. A more thoughtful , almost decent in some ways Jack emerges in About Schmidt, As Good As it Gets, and Something's Gotta Give. His film The Border, though not excellent as cinema, tells an important story. I have not yet seen The Bucket List, but it is moving up our Netflix queue so that I can see what he has to say about civet coffee -- something I crossed off my list before Jack did!

The only Nicholson movie I did not enjoy was Heartburn -- both he and Meryl Streep were just too mean to each other in that one!

Jack just wants his toast!

Selena memorial in Corpus Christi, Texas

Jennifer Lopez (J-Lo) has made at least two films that I consider quite important. We lived in Southmost Texas in the mid-1990s, when Tejano musician Selena was a rising star, the first woman to succeed commercially in her genre and the first Tejano singer to win a Grammy award. As fast as she rose, however, she fell quickly and tragically as her business manager assassinated her. We witnessed an incredible outpouring of grief, as the herione who had brought such pride to the region was killed so young and so senselessly. Young girls began to dress as Selena for Halloween and biographies were sold in grocery stores and door-to-door. When talk began of a movie, my local friends and I wondered who could possibly play the role to the satisfaction of Selena's adoring mourners. She had achieved saint-like status, and the role would be hard to fill.

I also assumed that having lived through the events, I would not learn much from the movie. Several years after leaving the Rio Grande Valley, we rented the film Selena and were amazed both by the performance and by how much we learned about the place we had just spent three years. I know of no better introduction to the culture of the border region.

More recently, J-Lo has outdone herself, producing an important film at signficant personal risk. She worked with the director of Selena to produce Bordertown, a fictional story set in the all-too-true context of the rapes and murders of women in Juarez, across the border from El Peso, Texas. Anybody whose life is made easier by cheap consumer products assembled in Mexico (that is, anybody living in the United States or Canada) needs to see this difficult movie, because it tells the story of the hundreds -- probably thousands -- of women who are killed with impunity since the maquiladora factories opened along the border. Lopez plays a Mexican-American reporter who is sent to cover the story and becomes involved in persuing two of the killers. The character puts herself at risk, but so too did Lopez and the production team. I highly recommend the Making of Bordertown in the DVD extras. In this piece, I was able to recognize the main street of Nogales, Sonora, where I have spent a lot of time and where part of the film was shot. One scene in the Making of film reveals that Lopez had bodyguards immediately next to her on the set, because ruthless and powerful people on both sides of the border would rather not have this story told.

Amnesty International presented its Artists for Amnesty award to Lopez at the Berlin Film Festival, and Lopez continues to support AI's campaign for the women of Juarez. Some of the music in the film was provided by Los Tigres del Norte, which several years ago issued Pacto de Sangre, a CD dedicated to the victims of these heinous crimes.
Los Tigres del Norte -- Pacto de Sangre

Spalding Gray has long been one of my favorite wits. He was an extraordinarily gifted thinker, known mainly for the films based on his incredible monologues - Swimming to Cambodia was so funny that I lost my breath laughing. I also enjoyed Monster in a Box, a sort of extreme essay on writer's block. Pam and I had the privilege of seeing one of these performed live in Boston in 2001 or so. We knew that he had a lifelong struggle with depression, but we were shocked to learn that he has been found in New York's East River. We miss his wit and humanity.

NPR Remembering Spalding Gray includes fascinating and moving interviews of Gray's friends and widow.
Read the BBC Obituary and see the complete IMDB Filmography (See the "Himself " section of the page for his best work.)

Professor H-B trivium: I was once an usher for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I saw it six times one week, and probably another six times since then. I also have the video, but it is hardly worthwhile. See the official RHPS site to see how many times the true fans see it!

Non-Virgins will know that the show is situated in "Transsexual Transylvania." The film is not, however, instructive for visits to the real Transylvania. In fact, I showed the film to a friends at my church prior to our 2004 Transylvania pilgrimage, but I have not yet had the nerve to show the film -- or even mention its existence -- to my friends there.

Back to James Hayes-Bohanan's Environmental Geography or Just Fun.