Here comes the movies with dialogue so cool — why did they never tell me to speak like that in primary school?

Breaking and Entering (Anthony Minghella, 2006). Unexpectedly standing as the last feature film from Minghella, Breaking is evidence that we’ve lost someone from the dwindling population of directors interested in crafting films for grown-ups. With its tricky plot, its examination of delicate matters such as the growing chasm between economic classes and its unapologetic willingness to let the messiness of life seep into its framework, it’s hard to imagine that anyone ever expected this to become a substantial earner at the box office. Yet there it is, playing out with delicate insight and unfussy emotion. There’s a quiet ache to this story of a business executive who finds himself wandering a bit within his own life after a couple of break-ins at his burgeoning company. Minghella–working his first original screenplay since his debut, Truly, Madly, Deeply–handles everything with great care. There’s an abundance of story and telling character elements, and it’s all balanced out very nicely. I regret bypassing this in the theater. Especially because, had I known that it had Vera Farmiga playing an colorfully agitated Russian hooker just a couple months after the release of The Departed, I would have been there for opening night.

Holiday (George Cukor, 1938). Released the same year that Howard Hawks sent them careening through the film that defines screwball comedy, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn generate some flinty sparks in a very familiar comedy of manners. The battle of class consciousness, the misplaced romance, the pithy put-downs are all well-represented as Grant’s character finds himself falling for his new fiancee’s sister during a colossal engagement party. It’s solid but dated, bearing some of the stiffness of early Hollywood, especially those films that transported stage plays to the screen. There is a very nice supporting performance by Edward Everett Horton, who wraps his splendid voice around the wryest, shrewdest lines in the script.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Beam (John Huston, 1972). A rickety mess from Huston, who can’t make sense of this attempt at the sort of western tinged with modern, twisty sensibilities that held some appeal for filmmakers in the age of Sam Peckinpah and George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s little more than a series of increasingly tiresome incidents as the prickly title adjudicator played by Paul Newman takes over a frontier town. Maybe it’s good for a misplaced laugh to see Huston himself bluster pointlessly for a scene as Grizzly Adams or to watch Victoria Principal strain admirably but ineffectively in her screen debut as a Latina spitfire, but overall it makes for fairly dreary viewing.

Miami Blues (George Armitage, 1990). This is one of those films that’s nagged at me for a long time. It was released just as I was starting to treat the local cinematic emporium as an additional home, and immediately picked up a certain cult cachet that it carries to this day. While I’ve never been overly motivated to see it, Miami Blues is something I’ve felt should be in my little black book of movies. Now that I’ve seen it, I can only muster a shrug. It’s interesting to see some of the basic noir conventions played out in one of the sunniest places imaginable. It’s the sort of crunchy lunacy that made a career for Carl Hiaasen. Armitage’s movie is peppered with amusing passages, but it’s ultimately hampered by a pedestrian visual approach and middling performances by Alec Baldwin (still in the pretty boy coasting era of his career) and Fred Ward.

The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961). With strikingly beautiful black-and-white cinematography, a fiercely uncompromising screenplay about small-time pool sharks and probing direction by Rossen that immerses itself in the seediness of its world while still standing apart enough to appraise it, The Hustler is routinely and rightly hailed as one of the greats. Paul Newman won his Oscar for playing “Fast” Eddie Felson twenty-five years later, but this performance is the one that has teeth. Newman artfully shows how Eddie’s compulsion and anxiety mixes with his charisma to form a dangerous cocktail. Self-destruction seems assured from the first time Eddie struts onto the screen. The world chips away at him until his propulsive need to win, to prove himself is all he has left. Jackie Gleason brings a paradoxical grace to Minnesota Fats, and George C. Scott is marvelous as always as the handler who briefly takes on Eddie.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

4 thoughts on “Here comes the movies with dialogue so cool — why did they never tell me to speak like that in primary school?

  1. “Want some more ‘taters?”

    That is ALL I remember about Miami Blues. For some reason, it struck me and Janie as HIlarious, so we’d repeat it often to send each other into fits of giggles…

        1. Oh wow. For some weird reason, I have a memory of it being in Theater Three. Maybe it just feels like a Theater Three movie.

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