Monday, September 22, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Informer" (1935)

"Stagecoach." "The Searchers." "The Grapes of Wrath." "How Green Was My Valley." "Drums Along the Mohawk." "Young Mr. Lincoln." "My Darling Clementine." "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." "The Alamo." "How the West Was Won." "Mister Roberts." "The Quiet Man." "How the West Was Won." "Rio Grande."

John Ford arguably directed more iconic movies than any other Hollywood filmmaker. Unlike Hitchcock or Welles, who never earned the plaudits during their lifetimes commensurate with their body of work, Ford was well recognized by his peers: his four Academy Award wins for Best Director are a record that will likely never be surpassed.

(He won two more Oscars for his wartime documentaries.)

Interestingly, none of his Oscar wins were for Westerns, the genre with which he is most associated. His first, 1935's "The Informer," is probably the least known of the bunch. Based on the novel by Liam O'Flaherty, it was previously adapted into a 1929 British film before Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols had their own crack at it.

The result was a resounding success, winning four of its six Oscar nominations, losing the Best Picture race to the Clark Gable/Charles Laughton version of "Mutiny on the Bounty." Star Victor McLaglen won for Best Actor, and Max Steiner took the musical score prize. Nichols won the screenwriting Oscar, but became the first person to refuse to accept an Academy Award, citing the ongoing screenwriters guild strike.

The members of the Academy apparently didn't hold it against him -- Nichols would go on to be nominated three more times.

McLaglen is hardly your standard matinee idol. A huge man with a barrel chest, craggy face and balding pate, he mostly resembled an albino ape with an Irish brogue. (He often affected that accent for his roles to the point American audiences assumed he was an Irishman; actually he was a Brit born in Kent who was raised in South Africa.)

McLaglen gives an exuberant performance as Gypo Nolan, a dimwitted bruiser and petty thief who was court-martialed out of the Irish Republican Army for endangering the rebels with his inability to keep a secret or maintain a low profile. For some reason, the IRA guys here are all represented as young, good-looking fellows wearing long trench coats and narrow-brimmed fedora hats, almost like proto-Bogarts.

Gypo is not just dumb; he seems to have absolutely no control over his thoughts and urges. He essentially exists as pure id, his mouth and his fists immediately carrying out whatever thoughts spark inside his primordial swamp of a brain. He swaggers this way and that from moment to moment, becoming increasingly inebriated (a McLaglen specialty) as the story goes on.

The setup is that Gypo, penniless and friendless in 1922 Dublin, rats out an old friend on the lam (Wallace Ford) in exchange for a 20-pound reward from the police. Unfortunately, his friend is caught at his mother's house and refuses to be taken prisoner, and is gunned down by the police.

Gypo had hoped to use the money to buy steamship tickets to America for himself and his sweetie, Katie (Margot Grahame), who has recently been forced to selling herself on the street. His 20-pound fortune now becomes blood money, a deadly albatross hanging around his neck and spilling out of his pockets as he goes on one long bender of drinking and carousing.

Gypo at one point declares it "the greatest night of my life," and he means it, despite his genuine sorrow for his good friend's death as a result of his actions. Always forced to be the mindless muscle, the guy who stays in the back and takes orders, Gypo revels at becoming the "cock of the walk," buying everyone rounds and bursting into an exclusive party of hoity-toity types.

He takes to going around holding his meaty fists in the air like a triumphant prizefighter, shouting his own name with a crescendoing emphasis on the latter syllable: "Gih-POHH!!" It's his cry out to the world, a man celebrating a brief interlude as the center of attention, a bonfire that's bound to burn out.

Of course, his time on this mortal coil is ticking downward. The IRA quickly figures out that it was him who fingered their compatriot. And with every pound Gypo drops at various pubs, fish 'n' chips counters and saloons, it's not hard to put together who claimed the filthy lucre.

Preston Foster plays Dan Gallagher, the local IRA commandant, who knows he has to enforce the code against snitchers but it reluctant to condemn another man, especially one so pure of heart as Gypo. By "pure of heart" I don't imply that Gypo is angelic -- far from it. What I mean is that the towering lummox hasn't an ounce of deceit or falseness in him. Whatever he's doing or feeling at any given moment, he gives himself over to that completely.

At first pathetic and imbecilic -- watching him fritter away his money on whiskey and hangers-on, his dreams of finding a new life in America almost immediately dashed -- Gypo eventually becomes a tragic, sympathetic figure. At the end when he's finally caught he pleads, "I didn't know what I was doing!" And it really is true.

After he escapes (briefly) from the IRA and runs to Katie, he demands to know where the 20 pounds he gave her is -- forgetting, in his drunkenness and stupidity, that there were only a few crumpled notes left when he finally handed them over.

Heather Angel plays Mary McPhillip, the sister of Gypo's betrayed friend. She has a romance with Gallagher that feels ill-placed within the story of Gypo's descent and ultimate absolution. Una O'Connor plays her mother -- her name may not be recognizable, but her face is, a character actress often called upon to play ridiculous older women, such as the pinch-faced maid in "Witness for the Prosecution."

"The Informer" isn't a great movie, but it shows off John Ford's burgeoning talent for using landscapes to his benefit, weather sprawling vistas in Monument Valley or the mist, dank streets of London. And McLaglen is a revelation as the flawed, pitiable Gypo.

Known to be extremely hard on actors -- Ford was dubbed "the only man who could make John Wayne cry" -- he also knew how to get great performances out of them.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Video review: "The Rover"

Australian writer/director David Michôd’s first feature film, “Animal Kingdom,” garnered a lot of attention four years ago, not to mention an Oscar nomination for Jacki Weaver. His follow-up, “The Rover,” is a bold and innovative sophomore effort, though only intermittently engaging.

It’s set 10 years after a global economic collapse. Different nationalities have moved to Australia for undisclosed reasons. The outback has never looked so dry and spare, seemingly just a collection of roads interrupted by strips of shantytowns. There’s some electricity, and a little commerce, but mostly it’s just a bunch of tired people playing out the string.

Enter our (never-named) antihero, played by Guy Pearce. His sullen stare and studied silence lend a clue that he’s not to be messed with. When a band of criminals crash their truck during a getaway, they steal his car. He manages to get the truck going again, and takes off after them. In fact, he seems quite willing to die to get his car back. Why? The vehicles seem like a fair trade.

Along the way he encounters Rey (Robert Pattinson), the dimwitted kid brother of one of the robbers, who was left behind, shot up and dying. Our man takes him to a doctor to get stitched up, then holds him hostage to help find the brother, and his car.

Over time, the two men develop an unlikely bond. Pattinson is a marvel, displaying an innate sweetness and more than passable Southern accent. They each have something to teach the other: Rey needs to toughen up, and his crusty friend needs to be reminded where the last nugget of his humanity resides.

 "You should never stop thinking about a life you've taken,” he says. “It's the price you pay for taking it."

“The Rover” is essentially a mystery, in which we try to puzzle out who this strange man is, what is the source of his anger and pain, and whether he’s really as bad as he seems to be. The plotting is a bit tedious at times, and even at 102 minutes the film could probably have used an editing trim. It’s a worthy effort, if not an entirely successful one.

Video extras, which are the same for DVD and Blu-ray versions, are limited to a single featurette, “Something Elemental: Making The Rover.”



Thursday, September 18, 2014

Review: "This Is Where I Leave You"

I'm not sure if "This Is Where I Leave You" is the most original film ever made, but what it lacks in freshness it makes up for with delectable actors and snappy scenes. The Altmans are borderline crazy, self-obsessed and narcissistic, but somehow 103 minutes with them feels like time well spent.

Directed by Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum") from a screenplay by Jonathan Tropper, based on his own novel, the movie brings together the four adult children of the Altman clan after their father passes away. Mom Hillary (Jane Fonda) is a real piece of work, a showboating therapist who wrote a best-selling book, "Cradle and All," in which she spilled the intimate details of her kids' tumultuous upraising.

They have not, unsurprisingly, turned into well-adjusted adults. And they're none too pleased about their mom's insistence that they sit Shiva together for seven days, per their father's dying request. (This, despite being only partially and nominally Jewish.)

Judd (Jason Bateman) is the fulcrum, the character upon which all the others pivot. A successful radio producer and one of those guys who seems to have the perfect little life planned out, he's thrown for a loop when he catches his wife sleeping with his boss.

Sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is brittle and angry, mother to two young kids and married to an on-the-go businessman who can't put down the phone and work for even a few minutes, not to mention witness the miracle if his child's potty training.

Paul (Corey Stoll) is the oldest and most responsible, the one kid who stuck around in his hometown to take over the business from his father. He and his wife (Kathryn Hahn) have been trying without success to get pregnant, and the pressure and constant questions about their progress is like splitting a rail.

The baby of the clan is Phillip (Adam Driver), born years after the others and partially raised by them. A natural-born screw-up with an impish talent for needling others, Phillip is dating a much older woman (Connie Britton) who acts as his enabler and sugar momma.

The filmmakers essentially throw this grab-bag of resentment, sibling rivalry and neuroticism into a pot and set it to a slow boil. There are arguments, jokes, bonding, more fighting, and so on.

It doesn't sound like much, but the cast really drives the material to terrific heights. They click in a way that you rarely see large ensemble casts do; usually each actor is trying to accomplish their own goals for their character and sacrifice the group dynamic. This is the sort of movie that you can't imagine any other performers in those roles.

A few minor characters flit in and out of the foreground. Across the street is Hillary's dependable friend Linda (Debra Monk) and her son Horry (Timothy Olyphant), a former beau of Wendy's who suffered a terrible brain injury years ago. He sort of wanders around, helpful but forgetful, like a more verbally proficient Boo Radley.

Wade's estranged wife (Abigail Spencer) turns up, pleading for a second chance and with more drama to share. Penny Moore is a townie (Rose Byrne) who's stoked a long-burning fire for Wade, and he's at a low point where those glowing embers are looking pretty good. I also enjoyed Ben Schwartz as a young rabbi who can't outrun his horndog teen reputation and nickname.

Despite not a lot of screen time to spread around to every character's story, the film does a good job of making each of them distinct and relatable.

"This Is Where I Leave You" plays out fairly predictably, but I didn't mind the lack of surprises because the journey getting there is so caustically funny and unexpectedly heartwarming. When the Altmans aren't verbally punching each other -- sometimes physically, too -- you want to give them all a good squeeze.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: "My Old Lady"

Kevin Kline is in fine, fine form in “My Old Lady,” a movie that is not about his character’s wife. In it he plays a middle-aged man with a squandered life who finds that the incredibly valuable Parisian apartment he has inherited comes with a catch: the 92-year-old woman who already lives there, and isn’t about to leave.

She’s played by Maggie Smith, no slouch herself.

It seems Mathias Gold’s estranged father purchased the lovely chateau-sized place from Mathilde Girard more than 40 years ago under a “viager” arrangement. This especially French concoction involves selling a home at a low price, often to an elderly person, with the agreement that the seller will continue to live there, indefinitely. The buyer only gets the place when the seller dies.

Mathias, a failed writer, has little to show for himself other than two divorces and the clothes on this back. He used his last penny to fly to Paris to arrange the sale of his the apartment, which his hated father left him (unaccompanied by any funds, which went to charity).

Looking at a payday of millions of euros, he’s none too pleased to find Mathilde living there. A retired British teacher with an elegant if snippy personality, Mathilde has the legal right to stay – and even charge Mathias rent while he’s there!

(I feel compelled to point out that though the characters are supposed to be decades apart in age, Kline and Smith are actually only divided by 12 years -- yet another example of sexist showbiz ageism. Though both thespians have been blessed with stubbornly unchanged looks. And Smith had already been in the old biddy business for quite some time: she played a centenarian in “Hook” 23 years ago!)

Thus begins a sly contest of wills, as these two cagey warriors battle to outlast each other. To pass the time Mathias sells off some furniture for pocket money, gets advice from a real estate agent (Dominique Pinon), lines up a potential buyer and begins to take an interest in Mathilde’s daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), who also lives at the apartment and is more openly antagonistic than her mother.

Kline has always been one of the unlikeliest movie stars, a cards-down actor who always gives the sense of an internal complexity at work, only a peek of which he’s showing us at any given time. That’s especially true with the wily Mathias, who is presented as a loathsome opportunist, and yet is winningly charismatic and droll.

Writer/director Israel Horowitz, who adapted his own stage play, manages to craft a movie about a trio of characters, all of whom are deeply flawed in some way, and yet make the audience care deeply about them. Just when we might feel ready to judge them for some past action, new information comes along that makes those dark deeds, if not justifiable, then at least relatable.

Filled to the brim with smart, snappy dialogue and engaging characters, “My Old Lady” is one of those movies that keeps revealing new layers to itself. I certainly hope Kline’s turn, one of the best of his career, is remembered come Oscar nomination time.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989)

"Crimes and Misdemeanors" is perhaps Woody Allen's most ambitious film, and not his most successful. Though it was a substantial critical and popular hit, I found it rather dreary and ineffectual. It's a self-conscious exploration of morality, of whether belief in God or in humanist choices are incompatible, and whether dark crimes -- big and small -- can weigh down our souls like anchors in the ocean.

It's the sort of movie, in fact, where the two main characters, whose stories have paralleled without ever intersecting, bump into each other in the last scene and blatantly discuss the theme of the picture. It's the classic example of telling rather than showing, and I'm of the school that when you tip your hand too much into the light, the audience is quick to check out emotionally and intellectually.

In many ways "Crimes" reminded me of "A Serious Man," another movie by great filmmakers that I disregarded despite the widespread affection with which it was met. Both also focus on Jewish figures whose faith is called into question, though Allen's picture is more about the general question of faith in a higher power, while "Man" is essentially a rumination on Jewish theological imperatives.

Martin Landau received a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Academy Awards, which is ridiculous for what is so clearly a leading role. He plays Judah Rosenthal, a very successful ophthalmologist who has reached the "great man" point of his career, where he collects awards and salutations in his final years before retirement. He has a loving wife (Claire Bloom) and daughter, a fabulous Long Island mansion, status and respect, and is by all measures a good person who does charitable work.

But he has a secret. For the past two years he's been carrying on an affair with a younger woman, a flight attendant named Dolores (Anjelica Huston). He recently broke it off and she's become unstable, threatening to confront his wife and making all sorts of demands upon him. Dolores appears ready to blow up his life if she can't have him, destroying his marriage and even having him arrested as an embezzler, since he confided in her about some financial improprieties involving the foundation he heads up.

On the flip side is Cliff Stern (Allen), a wannabe documentary filmmaker whose entire existence seems to be built around hollow aspirations for the sort of success Judah takes for granted. His marriage to Wendy (Joanna Gleason) is an empty husk, drained of all passion and joy -- they're just marking time until the inevitable. He spends most of his days watching old movies or trolling book stores, often in the company of the niece he dotes upon.

Cliff is given a huge opportunity to direct a PBS profile of Wendy's brother Lester, a famous television comedy producer and writer. Cliff can't stand his preening, self-adoring brother-in-law, played with full-bore snark and smirk by Alan Alda. (Lester has the habit of interrupting conversations so he can whip out a tape recorder to document his awful, but commercially viable, ideas for shows.)

But Cliff falls hard for Halley (Mia Farrow), a producer on the show. Lester also has an eye for the careful, cautious woman, who's just come out of a nasty divorce. So at first it's unclear if Cliff is wooing her just to spite Lester. But they find a genuine attraction between them while collaborating on Cliff's true labor of love, a documentary about little-known but brilliant philosopher.

The two characters share a lot of the same New York City bandwidth without ever actually tripping over each other, at least until the movie's end. Judah treats Lester's brother Ben (Sam Waterson), a rabbi who is going blind but seems to retains his full vision about the human condition and its perils. The two men are eventually brought together by a wedding that Lester is paying for, as Cliff and Wendy make their final appearance together before announcing their divorce.

It's pretty clear that Allen was using Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" as the basis for a modern riff on the themes of guilt and morality. Judah uses his scuzzy brother (Jerry Orbach) to have Dolores murdered, and then he spends of the rest of the picture anguishing over his terrible actions. He even visits her apartment after the deed is done, ostensibly to collect incriminating photos and journal entries but mostly, we suspect, to gaze upon her dead body and punish himself.

A doubter who grew up in a deeply religious family, Judah begins to feel the weight God's gaze upon him, and wonders if he'll ever be able to see the light again. When a police detective drops by to ask routine questions, he almost confesses his sins upon the spot.

Cliff, on the other hand, is guilty of much less serious acts of immorality -- desired, if not commissioned, infidelity -- and does not feel any remorse over how much he disdains his wife. It's a fairly typical Woody Allen character, full of neurotic bombast and nebbishy charm, and we feel greatly for the little fella when his worst fears are realized and Halley returns from a long assignment in Europe affianced to Lester.

Though it's more or less a straight drama, Allen can't resist throwing in bits of his trademark humor, such as Cliff's edit of the profile about Lester including cutaway shots to Mussolini. Or lamenting about his nonexistent sex life: "The last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty."

I adored Martin Landau's performance in "Crimes and Misdemeanors," but on the whole I found the juxtaposition with Allen's own character incongruous and unsatisfying. Allen tries to split the difference between two interesting characters, and loses his way.

Supposedly the filmmaker threw out most of the first act while editing the movie, and called back his cast for reshoots. I think the best movie he could've made would have been to write himself out of the picture.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Video review: "Godzilla"

It’s only been four months since the (latest) remake of “Godzilla” hit theaters, but already the movie has recessed into the dim fog of memory one keeps for so-so flicks.

This was one-half of a terrific summer action movie. Once big G finally arises from the ocean and starts laying the smackdown on his equally huge bat-like foes, “Godzilla” is as fun and entertaining a film as we saw all season. But you have to wade through the dreary first 60 minutes to get to the good 60.

Bryan Cranston plays a scientist whose life was turned upside by a deadly seismic event 15 years ago. Now he’s a loony loner spouting conspiracy theories, and is estranged from his son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a resolute soldier. But when monsters start wreaking havoc on cities in Japan, Hawaii and San Francisco, they put aside their differences to answer the call.

The middle section is truly stultifying, as talking-head generals and politicians debate the scientific and geopolitical repercussions of skyscraper-sized beasties doing a WWE imitation on their population centers.

Eventually “Godzilla” finds a sense of fun, but you may not find the wait worth it.

I would never advise people to buy a ticket to a movie but not walk in until the halfway point. But on video… well, let’s just say that if, during the early going, your finger gets a little jittery hovering over the Chapter Skip button of your remote control, I won’t judge.

The video comes equipped with a nice host of extras, divided into two sections. “The Legendary Godzilla” looks at all aspects of the production, from special effects to casting the actors, and creating the look of the M.U.T.O.s, Godzilla’s ancient enemies.

“MONARCH: Declassified” is supposedly a host of “evidence” showing how the governments of the world hid knowledge of Godzilla’s existence for decades. Fun, quirky stuff.

Features are the same for the DVD and Blu-ray combo pack versions.



Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review: "The Drop"

"The Drop" is an intriguing, atypical movie. It starts out with a lot of disparate characters and story elements, some of them related, much of it not. Over time they gradually float towards each other, each piece locking into place in a way that might not have seemed obvious at first.

The experience of watching it is like stumbling upon a disassembled pocket watch, and then witnessing the little gears and springs drag themselves, with almost gravitational pull, into a cohesive whole again. The actual process of putting itself back together can be a bit tedious at times, but at some point everything clicks together.

This is another film based on the writings of Dennis Lehane, who also penned the screenplay. Movies based on his work have been up ("Gone Baby Gone"), down ("Shutter Island") and vastly overhyped ("Mystic River"). Here is a film that seems to contain the Lehane mythos boiled down to its inky essence. The story happens almost entirely inside one seedy bar, and the few frozen city blocks around it.

Tom Hardy plays Bob Saganowsky, who sloshes drinks at Cousin Marv's Bar. Bob speaks in a clinched little croak, almost whiny; he isn't terribly bright and is passive almost to the point of transparency. There are rough types who come into the bar, and some try to get a rise out of Bob, but they leave unsatisfied, because it's like kicking a sweet puppy who only comes back for more.
He is, in short, a mook.

Cousin Marv is mostly a figurehead these days, an aging hulk who barely moves from his corner table. His name's on the bar, and he used to run a little action on the side -- he was, he says, somebody who made people sit up when he walked in. But he got pushed by some tougher Chechen mobsters, and flinched, and now it's their bar and he just runs it.

James Gandolfini could play controlled rage better than just about anybody, so Marv is a fitting final screen role for him.

The title comes from the process of picking one bar at random to be the place where all the gambling and other dirty money winds up for the night -- "the safe for the entire city." It soon becomes clear that somebody's looking to hit Marv's the night it's the drop, and Bob gets caught up in the tide of events.

One night Bob is walking home from work and comes across a bloodied puppy dumped in a trash can. The woman who lives there, a waitress named Nadia (Noomi Rapace), helps him patch the dog up, but insists Bob adopt him as his own. He blanches at first, but finally takes on the little pitbull, whom he dubs Rocco. This is, for him, a major addition to his tiny universe, which essentially consists of just the bar and keeping up his dead parents' tidy brownstone.

Accepting the responsibility of the dog changes something in Bob ... or does it? Hardy's performance is one poker face behind another, so we're never quite sure what's going on the other side of that lunkhead mien. Dribs and drabs of information leak out to suggest there's more there. He and Nadia start seeing more of each other, hesitatingly -- it's like two wounded animals sniffing the other's wounds.

Other characters' orbits intersect with that of the bar. There's a perpetually smiling police detective (John Ortiz) who sees Bob at the same church every morning, and wonders why he never takes communion. He starts investigating a stick-up at the bar, and then noses into old crimes that have become part of the neighborhood lore.

There's Eric Deeds (an imposing Matthias Schoenaerts), a hustler with a past connected to Nadia. He casts a baleful eye at Bob for seemingly mysterious reasons, stopping by the bar or his house, claiming Rocco is actually his dog, and dropping idle threats. (Somehow, he makes an umbrella seem weapon-like.)

And then we have the Chechen boss, Chovka, chillingly played by Michael Aronov. He expects Marv and Bob to recover the money stolen during the robbery. You can see the wheels turn in Bob's head, slowly, and in Marv's head, slightly less slowly -- if they could find the money, wouldn't that imply they were in on the job?

Director Michaël R. Roskam takes his time -- too much, really -- building up the suspense, but the plot of "The Drop" eventually gets there.

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