That's life - movies for cold winter nights

tony bender

Thank goodness for streaming services during these frigid North Dakota winter nights. I thought I'd share with you a few of the great movies that I've watched recently. Grab some popcorn and settle in.

The Shootist

Decades ago, a friend of mine gave me a theater placard for this movie which I had framed. What a treasure. This 1976 film stars John Wayne in his last movie as J. B. Books, a dying gunfighter who decides he'd rather go out in a blaze of glory than die a miserable death in bed. Lauren Bacall stars as a prim widow who rents the gunfighter a room when he comes to town. Ron Howard is excellent as her teenage son, and James Stewart, playing a doctor, heads a star-studded secondary cast that includes Harry Morgan, Hugh O' Brian, Scatman Crothers, Richard Boone and John Carradine. They help make this movie a real treat. 

John Wayne the actor always overshadowed any part he played, but in this role he's more than bluster, he shows vulnerability and world weariness. He really was a fine actor and this is one of his best performances. Bacall peels back the layers of her stern, suspicious character as the story unfolds so when Wayne finally gets her to crack a subtle smile, she lights up the screen and you're reminded of why she was so great. Less is often more.

Pawn Sacrifice and Searching for Bobby Fischer

With the breakout success of the Netflix series “Queen's Gambit”, chess is suddenly making a comeback. This 2014 film tells the story of the real explosion of American chess that began with Bobby Fischer, the mercurial, half-mad chess genius, who took on Boris Spassky for the world chess championship in 1972. Tobey Maguire is remarkable as the driven, egotistical Fischer. Liev Schreiber is his excellent Cold War Russian foil who hints at his own bouts with insanity as the pressure builds. Are all chess players crazy? So it seems. 

And if you like this one, you'll enjoy “Searching for Bobby Fischer”, (1993) the story of an innocent, good-hearted child prodigy played by Max Pomeranc who is torn between a former grand champion played by Ben Kingsley and a street chess hustler played by Laurence Fishburn. Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen play the parents. Highly, highly recommended.

Dr. Strangelove

If I remember right, this 1964 Stanley Kubrik comedic commentary on nuclear annihilation didn't start out as the black comedy it became, but the concept of mutually-assured destruction seemed so absurd, he felt he had no choice but to go in that direction. Peter Sellers spectacularly plays three characters including the bizarre title role. 

The premise is that an insane American general named Jack Ripper, played by Sterling Hayden, launches nuclear bombers that Sellers (as President Merkin Muffley) and his inebriated Russian counterpart try to call back. George C. Scott plants the seeds for his role as Patton as gum-chewing general Buck Turgidson. At one point, he wrestles with the Russian ambassador and Muffley exclaims, “Gentlemen, you can't fight in here. This is a war room!” Slim Pickens is memorable as a determined cowboy-hat wearing pilot named Major (King) Kong. It's a classic.

Palm Springs

This 2020 romantic comedy about a couple stuck in a Groundhog Day-type time loop surprised me. First of all, Saturday Night Live alumni Andy Samberg is really good. Not every SNL player translates to 90-minutes on the big screen, but the affable Samberg does in a big way. His love interest is the charming Cristin Milioti. I would say it's almost impossible not to develop a crush on her. J. K. Simmons, who you see on Farmers Insurance commercials, does an acerbic comedic turn in this well-written fantasy. If you've been searching, you know that good, original (despite the nod to Groundhog Day) comedies are hard to come by in this Covid era. Palm Springs is a refreshing exception. Fun, easy and satisfying viewing.

K. William Boyer is the Managing Editor of the Devils Lake News Journal. He can be reached at kboyer@gannett.com, or by phone at (701) 662-2127.  

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