I’m Not Afraid – I Have No Fear

Most of the movies I have seen in my lifetime – not at, but most – have been movies I intended to see. I made a conscious effort to go to the theatre, Blockbuster, HBO, use my DVR, tape off of network TV and fast forward through commercials, get up early, or stay up late.

But there is that handful of flicks upon which my eyes would never’ve fallen had it not been for random fortune (or misfortune, in some cases). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for instance, is a movie I had never heard of until one steamy summer night as a teenager, on my way out to play baseball a-la The Sandlot with some kids from my neighborhood, my eyes fell upon the screen where a long medical car of some sort was driving in the wee hours of the morning, the music was literally a saw, and the credits said, “Jack Nicholson.” Needless to say, my friends survive without me striking out for the 100th time that night.

This was an example of stumbling upon a well-known flick and falling in love. But this month, we are talking about obscure movies, and I have to say that there have been a handful of instances, usually late night, that I have stumbled upon some stuff, quite unintentionally, that engrosses and (often) entertains.

And once in awhile, the movie is so good (to me), and yet, when I mention it to others, nobody has ever even heard of it.

I must’ve been a freshman in high school, and I was working on a spring term paper. My first-ever term paper, in fact. Now, I must tell you that in high school I was a homework animal. I didn’t screw around when it came time to get the work done. I didn’t require discipline or following up, either by parent or by teacher . . . it was just my duty, the way I saw it, ya’ know? Sure, I worked on homework during school during times when I maybe should’ve been paying more attention in class, all in an effort to avoid carrying home books, but I was pretty studious, all in all.

So, for my term paper, I’m sitting on my bed organizing these things called, um, “note cards,” or something. I wish for the sake of this otherwise thrilling story I could recall the topic of this term paper, but sadly I do not. Anyway, I’ve got books open, there are rows of note cards lined up and down atop the bedspread, and I’m actually enjoying this project.

And then, the sound of the silver HBO call letters flying over the buildings and out into space, declaring that a feature presentation was about to begin, whooshed throughout my bedroom while that familiar song echoed in the background, and I looked up from my work to see which movie-I’d-seen-1000-times this one was going to be.

The opening scene, nay, the opening SHOT of the 1991 movie Fearless, starring Jeff Bridges, Rosie Perez, Isabella Rossellini, John Turturro, and Tom Hulce depicts a mildly disoriented Jeff Bridges leading people away from a precarious and smoky scene. Moments later, we are in a cornfield where we see severely injured people, dying in fact, and rescue workers running in slow motion, tending to one victim after the next. And seconds after this, the camera angle switches to a helicopter’s perspective, and we learn that these people are in the immediate aftermath of a plane crash. The low, droning, ominous cinematic score flows very eerily over the visuals, people are crying, screaming, and dying, parts of the plane are exploding in fireballs all around the survivors, and the look on Jeff Bridges’s face is one of, for lack of a better word or phrase, confused euphoria. This is all in the first threethree mi of the movie.

For the next two hours, this dedicated-to-homework and always-ahead-of-the-curve student sat among piles of note cards and open books and didn’t take a single note or read a single word.

The very next sequence of scenes finds our main character, played by Bridges, trying to understand whether or not he actually survived the crash. In fact, much of the rest of the film is about Bridges trying to cope with the PTSD of being one of only a handful of passengers who, referred to by many other survivors as the Good Samaritan for his deed of leading survivors out of the wreckage, walked away from such a tragic event.

Through unsuccessful therapy, marital disaster, a coupling with another struggling survivor, and multiple run-ins with a greedy settlement attorney, Bridges slides down a cascading spiral of what he perceives as indestructibility, but what others know as self destruction.

I learned, years later while in college, that this film was used by psychology professors to teach depression, PTSD, and the “high,” as referred to in the film, that Bridges receives as he tries to defy death again and again in the wake of surviving the crash. I realized that this movie is not a movie about a plane crash, it is about a guy reaching out to be saved from a death that he doesn’t fully understand.

Directed by Peter Weir (Dead Poet’s Society, The Truman Show), Fearless is an ode to the human psyche, and to the many wondrous ideas and philosophies we can derive from it. But it is also a bitter case study that illustrates just how fragile the psyche can be, and how we all must look out for each other in moments of tragedy and loss.

I won’t soon forget Fearless. Heck, it resonated so clearly with me that I recalled where I was and what I was doing when I saw it first on HBO twenty-nine years ago.

“I’m your fairy godmother”

maid to orderThat Merry Clayton is in Maid to Order AND SINGS IN IT should be reason enough to check it out. Some 17 years after she belted out “It’s just a shot away!” from the depths of her soul with Mick Jagger in Gimme Shelter, she showed up in a movie starring Ally Sheedy where she sang an Ashford and Simpson-penned song while playing a maid. The mind reels.

And while we’re at it, let’s just take a moment to revisit that Ashford and Simpson penned a song sung by Merry Clayton in a movie starring Ally Sheedy playing a spoiled rich playgirl who eventually becomes a maid. These are Songwriters Hall of Fame icons who wrote such hits as Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, You’re All I Need to Get By, and Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman. For the movie Maid to Order, they wrote a fantastic little tune called I Can Still Shine. Merry Clayton sings it. Goosebumps abound.

Intriguing, no??

mv5bmjawnty3odkynf5bml5banbnxkftztcwmta0otgwmw@@__v1_sy1000_cr0,0,730,1000_al_From the outside looking in, Maid to Order might not look like much more than an entry in the catalog of “Superficial but Fun Feel-Good 80’s Flicks.” And there is absolutely merit in including it in that catalog. But there’s something else. It has a little “something.”  At the very least, that Something boils down to the telling of a sweet story with a message. At the very most, viewers are treated to a nicely-crafted film imbued with humor and heart, featuring a stellar supporting cast.

The story is just SO very 80s. Ally Sheedy’s Jessie is a mess. She’s a rich kid living in Beverly Hills (maybe Malibu?), partying too hard in her red Mercedes convertible, and being a jerk to everyone. Her dad is played by Tom Skerritt, a hard-working Business Man who just can’t seem to get Jessie to change her ways. One fateful wish placed by Dad in a moment of disappointed frustration, and Jessie finds herself with a chain-smoking but stylish fairy godmother played by Beverly D’Angelo, no money, and no job.


Maid To OrderJessie finds work as a maid for Georgette and Stan Starkey, millionaire record producers and two of the most hilariously horrible humans set to screen. Played with delicious satirical excess by Valerie Perrine and Dick Shawn, there are multiple scenes where they absolutely steal the spotlight. I get the impression that these character were written with two very specific people in mind. They’re awful in a multitude of ways and I have thought of them often with a chuckle over the years.

Maid to Order is written and directed by Amy Holden Jones, whose other writing credits include such gems as Mystic Pizza, Indecent Proposal, and Beethoven. She currently works creating and writing shows for television, where I wonder if she still runs into the Georgette and Stan Starkeys of the world. My guess would be yes. I’d love to pick her brain about this some day.

And so, if you have arrived at the end of my plea to give this fun little 80s flick a chance and find yourself wanting more, two suggestions have I:

  1. Check out Merry Clayton’s catalog. This is what YouTube is good for, friends! It will offer you some life-affirming moments, I promise. Fans of Dirty Dancing might be surprised to find out she is also the singer behind the soundtrack song Yes! Also, the story of how she was selected to sing backup on The Stones’ Gimme Shelter is pretty legendary. She’s an icon for these reasons and SO much more.
  2. Find Maid to Order and give it a look. There’s something for everyone – a little cheese, a little 80s, a little humor, a little music, and a LOT of heart.

“You don’t write because you have an idea, but because you can’t do anything else.”

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It’s a stormy night.

A shot fired from the barrel of a revolver.

Flashes of a man running frantically through the woods.

Police arresting Gerard Depardieu.

So begins A Pure Formality, a 1994 film co-written and directed by Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, a man most remembered for writing and directing Cinema Paradiso, a breathtaking Italian film about the nostalgic power of film. Cinema Paradiso won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1990. You can easily find it on streaming services, video stores, and public libraries (and it is recommended that you do so if you can stomach subtitled foreign films). To my mind, A Pure Formality is just as compelling, albeit in a different sense, but despite winning the top prizes at multiple prestigious film festivals (including the Italian Golden Globes) is still not available on streaming services or DVD in America. I had it on VHS at one point.

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I’m going to warn you now: any discussion of this film and why it is important to me is bound to include spoilers. Ordinarily, I would shy away from that sort of thing, but the odds of any of you ever actually being able to sit down and watch this film are very poor. And even knowing the amazing twist ending would not make the film any less compelling should you be lucky enough to experience it. This is a film about dialogue, two incredibly powerhouse performances, and tension. Knowing the end does not ruin those things, but it is appropriate to warn a reader that HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

In the film, shortly after Gerard Depardieu is arrested, we find him in a small precinct that has seen better days. The roof is leaking, the power is failing, the facility is rat-infested and understaffed. We learn that Gerard Depardieu’s character is named Onoff, a reclusive writer of considerable renown who hasn’t published anything of note in years, but he has no memory of anything other than his name. We learn that the police have found a mutilated corpse in the woods and that the police are suspicious of why Onoff might have been running in the area during a storm with an empty revolver in his trenchcoat. Onoff begins to fear that he is going to be framed for a murder that he did not commit. Onoff begins to fear that maybe he did commit this crime and does not remember it. Enter the Inspector (played by Polish director Roman Polanski). He is a skilled interrogator and he vows to get to the bottom of this unusual crime. What ensues is a tense and terrifying interrogation as Onoff begins to remember what happened.

There are very subtle nuances to the interrogation that make it far more compelling than your standard movie interrogation. Most of the conversation has nothing to do with the crime. I told you that Onoff is a writer of some acclaim. Well, The Inspector is an intellectual whose favorite novelist happens to be. . . Onoff. The Inspector can quote entire passages of Onoff’s most obscure works verbatim. At first, The Inspector is dubious of his suspect’s identity, but as the two men talk– about art, the beauty of the written word, the machinations of inspiration– the tables begin to turn and it becomes unclear if The Inspector is trying to solve a murder or convince his suspect to do him a favor and write one more novel before he retires. As the film progresses from there, we will learn that the time for one more novel has long since passed. The Inspector’s work is complete: Onoff accepts the power of his creative legacy and begins to confess. It turns out that he does, in fact, remember everything that has transpired this evening.

Earlier in the film, when the two characters are introduced, there is a line of dialogue that becomes key to the entire film:

ONOFF: I am Onoff.
THE INSPECTOR: Right. And I am Leonardo Da Vinci.

And then the final two lines of dialogue:

ONOFF: I did not catch your name.
THE INSPECTOR: I already told you. I am Leonardo Da Vinci.

It turns out in the end that this almost-defunct and decrepit police station is, in actuality, a purgatorial waystation for artists who. . . have committed suicide. Despondent over his lack of productivity, Onoff has taken his own life. As he says in the film: “You don’t write because you have an idea, but because you can’t do anything else.”

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This is an incredibly gripping film, made all the more powerful by the strength of its two leads. Gerard Depardieu is clearly one of the great actors of our time, but Roman Polanski steals this show. Interestingly, Mr. Polanksi is not know for his acting. He is a skilled director, known for classic films such as Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Pianist. The last film in that list earned him a 2003 Academy Award for Best Director, a move by the Academy that was highly controversial. Controversial because Roman Polanski is also, unfortunately, well-known for being a fugitive of the United States criminal justice system after fleeing the country in 1978 while awaiting sentencing in a sexual abuse case where he pleaded guilty to statutory rape.

Is this why Sony Picture Classics has not made this film available on DVD in America?

I should admit, at this point, that I have always actually been quite a fan of Roman Polanski’s work and did not find out about his questionable morality and lack of accountability until the controversial Oscar win. I recall watching those Oscars and wondering why such a large amount of the assembled audience refused to stand and applaud the win. I recall as well that The Pianist‘s lead actor (Adrien Brody, who also won Best Actor that year) accepted The Oscar on his director’s behalf as Roman Polanksi could not enter the country without being arrested on those long-ago charges. Learning what I now know put me into quite a tailspin: it seemed that my admiration for the work of such a despicable person said something untoward about me.

I suppose there’s an entire discussion to be had about the notion of whether or not it’s okay to support the art without supporting the artist. Is it even possible to support the art without supporting the artist? I think it is to a certain point and I have compromised with myself by not gravitating toward his recent works. I can choose to not support him now while still having affection for his prior genius. And nothing that I know about him now can change the effect that the first viewing of A Pure Formality had on me.

It really is a shame that you can’t see this movie.

Aaron here

If I had been thinking properly, I would have pulled up Greg’s Facebook profile on my cell phone, held it aloft between us, and had Frank take a picture. It wouldn’t have been quite the same as having all three of us there together, but it would have accurately reflected that all three Nerds were at least together in the same room in spirit.

Over the Christmas break, Karen took some time out of her frantic traveling schedule to get together with me and have dinner and a couple of drinks while we, for the first time since high school, had a lively film discussion in person. I met her boyfriend Frank. We talked about Aquaman (they enjoyed it, I didn’t). We talked about Bohemian Rhapsody (they enjoyed it, I didn’t). We talked about why The Favorite might be the best movie Karen has seen all year. We’re certain that Greg’s ears began to itch a time or two because he knew, even in Minnesota, that we were talking about him (Greg is sensitive to Steven Spielberg references even from hundreds of miles away).

It was wonderful to see her.

During our conversation we talked about the future of our blog. We agreed that we’re both exceedingly proud that we got this blog started and have continued to maintain it as long as we have. This month– January of 2019– marks our sixth month of this endeavor. We’ve had four movies of the month so far. We’ve spotlighted favorite actors, favorite films, favorite memories of our experience with the art of cinema. And it doesn’t end here. . . We have plans to include even more content over the coming year. We’re having fun with this project and don’t really want the fun to end.

With that said, movie blogs are time-consuming animals. They require maintenance and nurturing. You have to feed them and care for them when they are sick. And you have to make sure they get plenty of rest when they need it. Just like you do with people. For this reason, we have taken a break this month from our regular format and have opted to not spotlight a film in January to be our Movie of the Month.

One, we’re tired. Karen has spent a good chunk of the month traveling and the demands of Greg and mine’s respective jobs are especially gigantic this time of year. The collaboration that goes into a group entry like our normal Movie of the Month entries seemed daunting and infeasible.

Which actually works out. Sort of. Because . . . Two, we decided many months ago (thanks to an idea from Karen) that we wanted to spend the first month of the year talking about obscure films. We’ve talked about under-appreciated films, but not obscure. The movies that are so far below anybody’s radar that we consistently find that we are the only person who has ever seen them. How do we pick an obscure Movie of the Month? We’re never going to collectively agree on a choice because obscurity, by its very definition, means that whatever movie one of us comes up with has, more than likely, never been seen by the other two. So we’re gonna skip it this month, spend the rest of the month recommending that you seek out movies that you might not be able to find, and then we’ll be back in February with our first Movie of the Month for 2019. (Spoiler alert: It will probably be somehow Valentine’s Day-themed)

I’ll be back next week with an entry about a thought-provoking (and obscure) foreign film. And– tease tease tease– it’s not obscure because it’s foreign.

Until then, we want to take an opportunity to thank each and every one of our readers for your support over the last six months. We are very proud of the work we are doing here and hope that you will continue to enjoy the fruits of our labor throughout the coming year.

Speaking of . . . Happy New Year! I probably should have started there.