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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Now Rent This: These Little Town Blues

Welcome to the first Now Rent This: my opportunity to suggest movies you likely haven't seen, but will enjoy as a rental. So log into Netflix and let's start building up that queue. Today's theme is films set in small towns.

When the legacy of Sheriff Chris Cooper's father is called into question by the discovery of a body in the desert, he learns that the past can intrude rudely into the present. John Sayles' 1996 mystery Lone Star is one of my favorite movies because it creates a complete world within itself. The tiny border town is a character in the drama, every corner of the place containing some of its secrets. Watch for a single scene-stealing appearance by Frances McDormand. Unquestionably a writer's movie, the script is simultaneously wordy and incredibly spare -- there isn't a wasted phrase anywhere and everything said has meaning.

If you've never seen The Best Years of Our Lives from 1946, it's time. I plan to write several blog posts in the future aimed at those who have little or no interest in classic movies. I certainly understand their apprehension. Older films have different conventions from those made today -- slower pacing, unfamiliar speaking styles, and all that black and white -- and these conventions seem strange and distancing to many of today's viewers. With our soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, controversy about PTSD and the health care our veterans receive headlining the news, it's appropriate to take a look at arguably best movie about soldiers returning from war.

Three soldiers return from World War II to fictional Boone City, a perfect EveryTown USA, with an old high school and a new golf course. They fly home in the belly of a decommissioned bomber, surprised at the changes and nervous about landing back in their old pre-war lives. Iconic performances from Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy and Harold Russell keep the story rooted in drama rather than melodrama. Watch for a rather shocking scene in the drugstore when a political discussion turns violent. Seventy years later, it is easy to forget that the decision to enter WWII was not unanimous. The more things change...

You've probably never heard of Wildflower, a 1991 TV movie made for the Lifetime network, the retirement home for Designing Women and Golden Girls reruns. Actress Diane Keaton directed this small-town tale of a brother and sister who discover a neglected teenager hidden by her parents in a shed. The surprise here isn't the darkness-to-light story, since we've seen that a hundred times: think Lena Olin in Chocolat, Agnes Gooch, Sabrina, Awakenings, and every chick flick with a makeover scene. The surprise is the performances. Some newcomer in only her second film role plays Ellie, a girl with an unwavering sense of right and wrong. This newcomer, Reese Witherspoon, has a lot of potential. Also a pleasant surprise is Susan Blakely, a pretty blond actress who has been working consistently since 1972, playing heiresses and doctors and murder suspects on the small screen. Here she plays an abused wife in a loose cotton sack dress, in sore need of a facial and a mani-pedi, and Blakely really gets to act. What would her career have been like had this been an early role for her?

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