Decoy (1946)

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THIS IS MY VERY LATE ENTRY IN THE CMBA SPRING BLOGATHON: FEMME/HOMME FATALES OF FILM NOIR! 

Like any self-respecting noir, this one chooses to open in a grungy gas station bathroom with a hero (Herbert Rudley) disheveled, hobbling, and covered with grime. We can gather he’s been through hell. Better yet, Decoy begins at the end of the story with murder!

He hobbles past a gas station attendant, stands at the side of the road to hitch a ride to San Fransisco. Mind you, this is without saying a single word. Upon arriving, he wanders into a hotel. He takes the elevator up, pushes open the front door, sees an attractive woman packing and proceeds to fill her with lead! What’s even stranger is the cop who follows close at hand as if he knows exactly what’s about to happen. He plods in to find the shooter dead and the lady dying.

Here’s this pretty dame, Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie), in the arms of a hardboiled flat foot (Sheldon Leonard) recounting her indiscretions on her deathbed. Really all she’s doing is helping him pick up the stray pieces he already knew but for the audience, it’s all news. To get a line on the story, we must start back with an incarcerated gangster named Frankie Ollins (Robert Armstrong).

He is in line for the gas chamber and Margot has long been his girl. She assuages him, saying they’re lining up money to get him out of his jam — but she also is concerned about security — he has promised to keep her sitting pretty. And he has the resources to do it with $400,000 waiting out there for her somewhere. He just needs to give the word. We get the sense foul play might be a central component of our story.

From thenceforward she goes to work efficiently. She exerts her feminine charms on a local clinician who also regularly gives his services to the local prison. You see, he is pegged to do the autopsy on Frankie’s body just to make sure everything’s on the level. Except Margot’s got his head spinning — most of it happens off camera —  but we believe he’s fallen for her, like putty in her manicured, greedy little fingers.

And Margot goes all in, playing it up. The love angle is seemingly candid even as she tells him the plan to revive the “dead” gangster with Methylene Blue. We witness the gas chamber in a groggy POV shot. In another picture about regenerate gangsters, this would be the end. For Decoy it is merely the beginning.

Because Margot is the film’s greatest force as a notable apex in the gallery of B noir femmes. She keeps gangsters madly jealous, twisted around her fingers, and then righteous men start caving, relinquishing their high ideals just to be with her.

Two of the most oddball supporting characters in the pictures are the morgue attendants who distract themselves with solitaire and reading words out of the dictionary — a real hoot — but they are plain folk who don’t ask questions when the good doctor skips out on the normal autopsy.

They go on obliviously as the body gets carted off to the “oven” only to get picked up by waiting gangsters. By now, there’s little doubting it. Owens is to be resurrected and yet it’s the devil incarnate doing it! But someone like Margot is only operating in viable currency. People are only needed for their immediate value to her.

Frankie is out of the picture when he’s not needed, Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) is just a handy thug to have around, and of course, Dr. Craig’s expertise made him invaluable (although he does smoke cigs which always leaves me scratching my head).

Everyone else is under the illusion that she actually wants them. Her intentions surely cannot be completely self-serving? Can they? And yet she can be found jamming the accelerator to get rid of people and gunning down hapless accomplices with waves of giddy relish. Even on her deathbed, she gets the last laugh on a cop who falls momentarily under her spell. But for all her trouble she got absolute zilch. A creature of crazed avariciousness will ultimately be met with total destruction.

Jean Gillie’s accent somehow elevates her performance with an edge of refinement and respectability the British seem to have and yet her actions and words are like vicious daggers of selfishness. There is no other way to see her vindictiveness but within the context of film noir; it’s a pulpy delight. Detour is still the standard bearer and the pinnacle of Poverty Row, throw ’em together noir gems, but Gillie is a preeminent femme fatale, especially for such an unassuming picture.

3/5 Stars

 

Review: Hud (1963)

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“I’ve always thought the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner. Sometimes I lean one way and sometimes I lean the other.” – Paul Newman as Hud

Hud is up for contention for the finest film Martin Ritt ever made and it comes down to a truly collective effort. When you survey the talent assembled, it plays like a hit parade by pairing the director with some perennial collaborators who would see him to some of his greatest successes.

Obviously, Paul Newman was a hot commodity and Hud‘s tagline gets it impeccably right. He’s the man with the “barbed-wire soul.” Raffishly handsome, a womanizer, and a drunkard, no less. However, though Newman plays him as a villain, there’s this wonderful dissonance in the man because after all, he’s played by Paul Newman who was forever more likable than a Brando or a Dean. He stretches us to the limits as an audience as we try and discern what to do with him. Dare we say he’s still charismatic without giving the wrong impression about his lecherous attributes? I’m not sure.

Irving Ravetch served as joint screenwriter and producer and his partnership (along with his wife Harriet Frank Jr.) would be one of the most integral to Marty Ritt’s career. The production boasts the inimitable James Wong Howe as the cinematographer, set design by veteran Hal Pereira, Edith Head overseeing costumes, and a well-suited score by Elmer Berstein. This list of names stands as another feather in the cap of the studio system.

It’s a horizontal even cloudless palette in black and white that captures the malaise hanging over the characters with monochromatic lucidity. Bernstein’s arrangement, in fact, is only minutes long but is supplemented by the equally fitting stripped down effect of a guitar.

In many ways, Hud‘s a modern western like a Giant, The Misfits, or even The Last Picture Show documenting the evolution of a certain type of life whether it’s cattle being replaced by oil rigs, the onslaught of personal tragedy, or the debilitating nature of generational divides. There’s a certain dustiness and degradation proving itself to be a far cry from the glory days.

Melvyn Douglas gives a generally gray and emotionless performance that somehow fits the visual landscape. It grows on you minute by minute for its steady cadence, continuously exact and unhurried. Patricia Neal just might have the finest showing of the lot because she has to do battle in a man’s world. She’s both a housekeeper and thus, maternal but then also overwhelmingly assured in her independence. Staving off Hud’s advances and taking care of the two other Bannions — somehow remaining folksy, hospitable, and a bit sensuous too.

Meanwhile, Brandon de Wilde is crucial for the part he plays as the film’s most impressionable bystander. Though he is no longer the precocious little lad from Shane (1953), he is still the clean slate on which the world at large must rub off on.

The film’s first disruption comes from a state veterinarian (Whitt Bissell) with a verdict that the Bannion’s stock might be stricken with foot and mouth disease. Until they can get more conclusive information, the narrative is all but a waiting game and waiting makes the relationship between Hud and his father (Douglas) all the more contentious. They hold each other in contempt and it’s not simply for Hud’s cavorting reputation. There’s some other buried grievance that has never been resolved between them.

Pay attention and you’ll witness many recognizable small town trivialities. Lonnie (De Wilde) carries his transistor radio in his breast pocket. He and grandpa take in a comedy at the picture show complete with a rousing performance of “My Darling Clementine.” There’s the chasing of greased pigs at the Kiwanis Club event and boisterous brawls with the jukebox whirling away merrily. It’s a galvanizing moment of male bonding that fosters a might bit of camaraderie between Hud and his nephew Lonnie.

In the next pivotal sequence, Hud opens up candidly about his brother’s death in a car crash. Then, Hud has it out with his father and in his ensuing rage, fueled by a drunken stupor, makes aggressive advances on Alma. Clumped together like this, the turn of events either don’t sound impressive enough or don’t carry the air of lurid drama out of a drugstore novella. But watch the scenes themselves and they make sense and wield a resounding power in their cumulative effect.

Hud’s animal brutality is only matched by the slaughtering that is undertaken with the infected cattle. It’s a sickening image. Killing becomes so easy even as the long hard process of cultivation takes years and is subsequently snuffed out so quickly. It doesn’t seem right.

Each of our main characters seems destined for a slice of tragedy — every one of a different size and shape. But it never comes off as melodrama, at least not in the end, even as the misfortune strikes. More so, we are reminded that life is tough and at times merciless. Sometimes people are too. But Ritt never seems to leverage that to get a rise out the audience. He lets it play out. He lets his actors act and if that’s how we label it, then they do a commendable job, each contributing their piece to the ensemble.

Because what we are left with at the end of the road is a lot to mull over. I’m not sure what the conclusions are supposed to be and that’s not because this is an esoteric picture by any means. It’s for people and I think people can resonate with it for the very reason that it is affecting and the performances carry weight while never being overburdened by their own importance. Martin Ritt was an actor’s director and he cared deeply about their performances. It shows in just how beautifully they work together.

One of the truly resonating scenes is right near the end. Hud comes sauntering down the street in his cowboy hat and boots, sporting his starched white shirt like always. He gives someone a “hey” and comes around the corner to the bus stop.

We know who is sitting there and yet Wong Howe stays on his back momentarily as he turns to notice this person sitting out of sight. He sees the person and says a few words. It almost feels accidental but even in this, there’s a purpose. Because another film might have built this final interaction into a confrontation. Instead, Hud and Alma share an amiable conversation underlined by no hint of malice. It is what it is and they’ll move on like they always have. It does, however, accentuate a certain wistfulness. In an alternate reality, things might have been far different; they could have been better.

Granted, Hud doesn’t seem like the definitive source for wisdom and yet he might not be far off the truth when he tells Lonnie, “This world is so full of crap, a man’s gonna get into it sooner or later whether he’s careful or not.” It’s all but inevitable.

4.5/5 Stars

The Long, Hot Summer (1958)

The_Long,_Hot_SummerAs it turns out, Paul Newman’s a real barn burner. His family name is synonymous with conflagrations and it’s a great entry point for a character, in this case, a drifter named Ben Quick who’s run out of town by the local judge.

We never actually know if he was guilty of arson or not but we assume he must be. And so even with the audience, Quick carries that onus because the reputation seems to fit him. He’s a leering no-good, not to be trusted with money or women. It’s all speculation, mind you, though it cuts pretty close to the truth.

He receives some southern hospitality when a car screeches to a stop to pick him up. In the passenger’s seat is Eula (Lee Remick) with a coaxing sensuality accentuated by a sing-song twang that’s irresistible. More reserved is the driver, Clara (Joanne Woodward), who sees through Quick just like most people. She’s not about to be taken in by his animal magnetism.

This is just the beginning of a vast family drama and the names we have to thank are director Maritn Ritt, still trying to get his head above water after a blacklisting, and screenwriting stalwarts Irving Ravitch and Harriet Frank Jr.

Their tale was realized by weaving together three stories by William Faulkner that I have no prior knowledge of, matched with the atmospherics of a Tennessee Williams sweaty drama. In fact, it was released before a couple films that share more than superficial similarities, namely the well-remembered Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) also starring Newman, this time opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives. Then, there was God’s Little Acre (1958) which was probably the quirkiest and most erratic of the trio starring Robert Ryan as the head of the family.

Arguably, there’s no larger-than-life figure than Orson Welles to take the part of the portly patriarch of the Varner clan, Will, a man who puts his stamp on the local town. After a stint in the hospital with ailments, he comes back in fashion, sirens howling, so everyone knows that the king has returned. First, it’s a visit to his mistress (Angela Lansbury) who’s anxious to get married so she can have more stability. His responses remain evasive.

The Louisianna heat is no fluke and Welles is perpetually perspiring. He lends an earthiness to the proceedings that undoubtedly takes some cues from Ritt. Will Varner laughs boisterously at the catcalls of young boys directed towards his daughter-in-law, just as he conspires to get his other daughter hitched up so grandchildren can start popping out. In this regard, he’s very pragmatic (if not misogynistic). He wants heirs to maintain the family name because his gutless son certainly isn’t going to be the one to do it.

While important to the stability of the picture, by all accounts, Welles was a terror to work with for everyone on set. There are multiple indications of why this might have been. It’s all too probable he felt pressured and slightly insecure with the young upstarts coming on the scene from the Actor’s Studio, including Marlon Brando and his current co-star Paul Newman. Alternatively, with Welles being the renowned directorial power that he was, there was probably some dissatisfaction on his part because he couldn’t pull all the strings and have total control like he was normally accustomed to.

However,  put him together in a room with Paul Newman and you have two men in front of you as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks. Varner’s perceptive daughter puts it aptly, “One wolf recognizes another.” Soon they strike up a mutually beneficial deal throwing other people and lives around like they were pawns in a chess match to solely serve the two of them.

Varner wants a form of southern immortality. Males to bear his name and people to sing his praises and tame the land in a sprawling estate with spoils to match what he has accumulated over his lifetime. Quick, why, he just wants money and land and whatever else he can finagle out of the old man. What unites them is they’re both out for number one.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward go on their first cinematic date together and it’s a picnic in the park that ends prematurely. In real life, they would get married soon after principal photography wrapped and as they say, the rest was history. They stayed married for another 50 years until Newman’s passing in 2008. For a Hollywood marriage, this has to be some kind of record.

But regardless of what was going outside the frame, what is within the confines of the space is just as enchanting for the simple reason that they make some amount of palpable magic together. There’s a tension between them but then a certain attraction and pull that leads to oscillation back and forth in a continuous orbit of gravitation and then distaste.

In real life, it’s not what leads to stable romance but in film, it’s what dreams are made of because every sequence has an intangible undercurrent of spiritedness. It’s in the eyes twinkling. The unspoken words along with the spoken ones. Maybe it’s a lot of making something out of nothing but I would like to think it isn’t. They have something electric together.

Just as the film opened with fire, it’s another barn burning that ends the picture and gets the town in a tizzy. The irony is the very event that looks to be a dramatic firecracker actually reconciles a father and son. That’s the thing about The Long Hot Summer; it has the guts — some might say the gall — to end on an optimistic note without plunging into the throes of deep dark tragedy. Sometimes the 50s dramas take it too far. It’s almost as if they forget some of the greatest dramas historically were as much comedy as they were tragedy.

With so much talent, I’m inclined to like this one and since it all but led the pack coming out of the gates, it deserves some kudos. But best of all, the partnership between Martin Ritt, Ravitch, Frank, and Newman was just beginning, not to mention a marriage for the ages. It’s part of the reason why one can come away from The Long Hot Summer with a smile as wide as Will Varner’s.

3.5/5 Stars

The Left Handed Gun (1958)

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Few figures in the West have the mystique in western lore as Billy the Kid, aside from a few prominent names like Wyatt Earp, Butch Cassidy, Jesse James, etc. Billy Joel even famously penned a tune chronicling the life of the outlaw.

Part of the allure, no doubt, has to do with his youth and the casting of the man as a Robin Hood type anti-hero who only robbed those with excess. Inspired by a teleplay by Gore Vidal (who for the record disliked the picture), television-turned-film-director Arthur Penn makes a conscious decision to focus his story on other facets of the character.

Although slightly older, Paul Newman came into acting about the same time as James Dean and in some respects they were cut out of the same mold. At any rate, they came from a similar school of actors training in the 1950s. Though Newman was no Dean, he does a fine facsimile here. He gives a, at times, disconcerting but overwhelmingly giddy performance as Billy the Kid and somehow his age of 33 doesn’t seem to distract from the part too much. Because he’s still holding onto a decent amount of his boyish charm and good looks.

Leslie Stevens’ script features terse often tiresome colloquial dialogue in a downright peculiarly paced western. However, this is not the main point of interest anyway. For the record, William Bonney (Paul Newman) drifts onto a ranch and is taken on by a trusting cattle rancher John Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston). But that same penchant for trust winds up getting him killed in an ambush.

Though he only knew the man for a short period, Billy carries a fierce loyalty and resolves to go after the four men who conspired in killing his boss pulling, his reluctant partners Charlie Bowdre and Tom Folliard into it with him. Allusions to “Through a glass darkly” from Corinthians suggests a bit of the muddled kaleidoscope that the man envisions the world through.

One morning he’s howling with his boys on a wagon heaped with flour, caked in white and the next minute he’s provoking another man to draw on him just so he can blow him away. His old friend, Pat Garrett (John Dehner), has trouble knowing what to do in the face of William’s lighting-hot personality.

The newly minted amnesty in the territory means a temporary peace, instantly obliterated by a moment of stupidity among Billy’s buddies. Though the novels back east have cast him as some fictionalized larger-than-life figure, he’s really nothing like that at all.

His buddies get it and then as the final straw, Pat vows to hunt down his estranged friend, putting on the badge of the local sheriff, after an unwanted blowup at his own wedding. Billy has alienated the one man who will make him pay. First, he brings him in to be hung and then after the kid escapes, Garrett heads out again to finish things off once.  It’s a pitiful character arc and that’s the key.

While it might be overshooting its influence to say that the Left Handed Gun singlehandedly erected a new brand of western, at the very least, it suggested a new age of the West as we knew it. Beyond this, it’s hard not to draw parallels to Penn’s later work in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) which The Left Handed Gun is an obvious precursor to in the depiction of the outsider who uses violence almost indiscriminately.

One scene that leaves an impression involves a blurred image as Billy taunts a deputy from up above, toting a shotgun and blowing him away as he squints through the sunlight. Not only is it composed as a slo-mo killing but as his body lies in the street and people run toward him, instead of screaming, a little girl looks at his solitary boot just sitting there and proceeds to point and laugh. Her mother smacks her but the damage has been done. His death is a joke. There’s no point to it. People fail to react as they have been coached to since the dawning of the cinematic western.

There’s a senselessness to the killing which explodes with an almost haphazard vengeance. In no accordance with reason or morals nor in the end by perceived good or evil. Each bullet is yet another indication of all that is idiosyncratic in the subject matter. Not a hero, not a villain, but a perplexingly near neurotic gunslinger.

Whether it’s to everyone’s taste is another question entirely. It’s more character study than drama and in this close observation, it’s the distillation of a new kind of western hero — the anti-hero, or lack thereof, that is most notable. Today it’s less interesting because we have Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood, and even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

But as a picture going against the grain, an artifact from a certain moment in time, there’s still something burning within its frames. Even if it’s not a fully cohesive effort, The Left Handed Gun is not without its flashes of artfulness and intriguing volatility. It began the work of reconstructing the mythos of the West that had been forged in the movies though there was still a great deal more to come. In fact, Arthur Penn would return to western revisioning with Little Big Man (1970) over a decade later.

3/5 Stars

Review: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

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While I might not consider it one of the finest films ever produced, Cool Hand Luke features one of the most mythic characters ever conceived for the movies. He’s one of those figures who can seemingly only exist on celluloid. Luke Jackson comes out of a certain turbulent period in American history even as his story remains indelibly timeless.

Paul Newman realized some greats throughout the 1960s from Fast Eddie Felson to Hud and then Butch Cassidy. However, this monumental role is one of his most iconic regardless of all the others that came before and proceeded it. Newman stretches himself to the edge of the frame and then some. It’s difficult to even begin to consider who else might have managed the feat if not him — furnishing both a constant resiliency and the trademark gleam in his eye.

It’s that placid demeanor and vaguely smug attitude which is above all prepossessing. A near relentless self-subjection to suffering and malevolence follows and for the most ridiculously absurd offense. Luke was bored and so he went about town slicing the tops off parking meters while inebriated. For that, he’s given a two-year sentence on a chain gang. For that, he willingly takes on the ills, disdain, and wrath of a whole community of people without hardly batting an eye.

It begins when the “fresh meat” comes to town. They’re jeered by the veterans led by the hulking southern boy Dragline (George Kennedy) and filled out like all the quality prison movies with a bevy of talented character actors. Some fairly prominent names including Dennis Hopper and Richard Davalos as well character parts for Wayne Rogers, Lou Antonio, etc.

The new faces quiver in this foreign environment, among them Ralph Waite and Harry Dean Stanton. Meanwhile, Luke Jackson sports a stellar war record though he left the military with the same rank he had going in. He was just passing time.

There’s a mild disinterest, a silent bravado, and subtle anti-establishment slant to him. He doesn’t flaunt it necessarily but it does come out. The guards and the camp’s proprietor (Strother Martin) are wary of him and the inmates don’t believe he’ll ever come to learn their pecking order.

That’s what’s so appealing about the Luke character. He could care less what other people think. He never has to prove himself. He just does what he wants and as a result, makes himself an idol of the entire chain gang without ever trying to do so.

The script, penned by the story’s original author Donn Pearce as well as Frank Pierson, is adept at creating individual moments and bits of dialogue that are in themselves so distinctive, showcasing a remarkable ability to stand on their own merit. Even now over 50 years later.

“The Night in the Box” monologue might have its imitators but it has no equal, setting up the monotonous drudgery that makes camp life, backbreaking and yet somehow strangely comforting to some men. Strother Martin famously sums up his relationship with the troublesome prisoner as a “failure to communicate” while in another sequence the girl (Joy Harmon) saucily washes her car, tantalizing all the sex-crazed men on the job.

Dragline and Luke have a boxing bout that cements the new man’s reputation as well as a budding friendship with the camp’s resident top dog. He bluffs his way through poker games to earn his iconic nickname, “Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand” Luke grins almost matter-of-factly. Everyone else howls with delight at his exploits.

Next, overtaken by a surge of giddy energy he spurs on his compatriots turning their assignment of tarring a road into a game that captures the imagination of all involved. They are taken by his spirit which never seems to sour. It’s the same temperament that will lead him to eat 50 eggs in under an hour just for the heck of it. Whether he meant to or not the whole cohort feeds off of him, even as some spurn his attempts at individuality — most gravitate toward the man. From thenceforward, outstretched on a table like a Crucifix he is cast as their Christ-like figure.

A flurry of escape attempts is spawned by the news that his mother has died. The outcome was all but inevitable. Still, that doesn’t make it sting less. The conversation shared between the two of them earlier is only one minor scene of dialogue, and yet together Newman and Joan Van Fleet make something impactful out of it. Thus, when Arletty dies, off camera, it has critical implications for the man. For once, he shows some type of emotion; he cares about something.

Luke can be found strumming away at a banjo singing “Plastic Jesus.” Not being able to get away for the funeral he resolves to sing her a dirge of his own. The rest of the film is backed by Lalo Schrifrin’s score laced with a down-home country meandering melody contributed to by an arrangement of guitars, banjos, and harmonicas with more traditional string and brass sections. It’s the soundtrack of Luke’s exploits as he gets some jackrabbit in his blood and looks to jump the coop.

His Fourth of July escape runs the hounds ragged or else he’s “shaking the bush” to take a leak only to scramble off into the underbrush. He’s away long enough to even send the boys a souvenir from the outside featuring him gussied up with two bodacious gals. His smile lights up the page and the picture gives them something to keep their blood pumping; it’s really something to live for.

But multiple times he is brought back to confinement and “the box.” The bosses, having just about enough of his impertinence, subject him to neverending ditch digging and refilling after long days of work. They’re not about to let him forget he’s a prisoner. While his inmates helplessly watch him get worked to death in the camp yard, they sing “Ain’t No Grave” in solidarity with him. Throughout Stanton can be heard belting out Gospel spirituals accompanied by his acoustic guitar.

Director Stuart Rosenberg in his first movie after a career in TV at least ably conveys the pervasively sweaty grime of the day-to-day in such a world. Nothing is clean. Dirt clings to everyone and everything. It permeates every inch of the screen.

However, some of his visual choices come off rather clunky in execution. “The Man With No Eyes” constantly has his reflective sunglasses put on display as metaphor and the choice to end the picture in a clip show gives one last upbeat note but undermines what could have been an uncompromising ending.

Contrast Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1976) and on an external level, you have nominally similar dramas about a group rallying around one man to stick it to the institution. But there is little comparison between Randle McMurphy and Luke beyond that point just as the endings choose their own alternative resolutions.

As it is, Luke is smiling to the end of his days and Dragline canonizes him as a saint for all posterity. He becomes the vehicle for all their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. He is their Savior but he’s a fallible Christ-figure — never perfect and he never can be perfect — but they put there hope in him nonetheless. After all, he is a natural world shaker to the very last grin.

However, In his final hour, Luke can be found talking to The Man Upstairs in an abandoned church building. It is his version of Gethsemane:

“It’s beginnin’ to look like you got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all them rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Just where am I supposed to fit in? Ol’ Man, I gotta tell ya. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it’s beginnin’ to get to me. When does it end?”

Surely the implications are twofold. He maintained a failure to communicate with his fellow man as a perennial outsider turned-savior but the issue extended to his relationship with God too. He is all but alone. He’s an outsider without ever trying to be. That’s simply his God-given temperament. But that can be a wearisome existence and we cannot smile at Cool Hand Luke‘s ending without harboring a residual sense of pessimism as well.

5/5 Stars

Incredibles 2 (2018)

The_Incredibles_2.jpgPleasant surprises abound in Incredibles 2. What is supremely evident is that Brad Bird still has a pulse on quality storytelling just as the overall animation is blessed by the continual technological advancements in the medium.

Here we are picking up right where the previous film left off with the Parrs donning their disguises to face off against the Underminer to save the city. It works seamlessly as an opening gambit even if it has little bearing on the subsequent plot.

Regardless, it plays like a bit of wish fulfillment and yet somehow we must begrudgingly admit the encompassing magic has somehow left the material. We can never get back the unassuming success of The Incredibles now that it returns as a blockbuster juggernaut. Still, what isn’t lost is the retro cool or the equally frosty camaraderie provided by Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). Then, the long-awaited return of Edna Mode follows which is equally satiating though far too short.

The creme de la creme was witnessing the full extent of Jack Jack’s immeasurable powers. You can tell the Pixar team has a blast exploring his full potentials and they really hit it out of the ballpark to realize the open-endings they left themselves in the original movie.

However, the film also begins its new chapter by introducing a brother and sister power duo, Winston and Evelyn Dever (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener), who are looking to rebrand the superheroes and sway public opinion to get them reinstated.

Since we still live in a world wary of supers, this is a chance to right the ship and allow the Parr family to exhibit their powers without fear of public backlash. Despite everything they’ve been through as a family, what becomes increasingly apparent is how circumstances haven’t changed much. This is where the new chapter really begins.

On the homefront, they agree Ellen will dawn her Elastigirl attire once more as Bob is faced with the harrowing task of taking care of his children. Jack Jack is literally a bouncing fireball of energy. Violet is having boy problems. Dash is struggling with The New Math without his mother’s instruction. All these issues fall on the man of the house now.

Meanwhile, on the outside, Elastigirl must track down a criminal mastermind, The Screenslaver, who is using television screens to mesmerize audiences through some ultra high-tech form of mind control. But as this is a film full of media and PR tactics, it seems convenient this is all part of a broader conspiracy to discredit supers for good. It’s meeting the Deavor’s plan in an equal and opposite direction — with nefarious implications.

Villainy is always a sense of someone with convictions they believe to be true ultimately getting twisted in ominous ways. It’s easy enough to discern who the culprit is but we can hardly hold it against the narrative.

The story culminates at a summit to promote goodwill between benevolent authority (Isabella Rossellini) and the supers. However, as the result of wide-ranging tampering,  any projected trailer-worthy moments from our three favorite superheroes are essentially killed in a dastardly attempt to sink negotiations.

But what it does do is provide a platform for the Parr kids to strut their stuff. It seems fitting the final act belongs to them following their mother’s ascension to the starring role for the bulk of Incredibles 2. It is the best reminder that the series was always a family affair and far from being just another superhero movie, it was a family movie first and last.

Still, I cannot help but feel something is eerily amiss. Yes, if we reach back into our memories from where we left The Incredibles before it does feel gratifying to add another chapter to their story.

But like Finding Dory from only a few years ago, there’s such a big gap between the chapters, a certain amount of detachment sets in, especially since we are expected to pick up right where we left off. Toy Story 3 takes into account the fact we have matured over the last decade and change.

These newer entries seem to take it for granted that we are near the same places we were years ago. Granted, I understand it’s all but necessary with where we left the Parrs. Still, in a young person’s life seismic shifts have occurred and so if Pixar’s stories have not changed, it feels odd since we have changed so much. We are more out of touch with the content. Maybe we have even moved on.

And yet even as these stories operate as if nothing has changed, there are small things that do feel different. It’s nitpicky to admit but we have a new Dash and other slight changes in the original continuity. True, the Supers were all decimated by the threat of Syndrome but there are really no tie-ins to the heroes of old — I’m talking about the supporting crew aside from Mr. Incredible, Elastagirl, and Frozone.

Because we get this new batch of superheroes who in some strange way feel out of place and we have no reason to like or even care about them. Is this overly harsh? Perhaps but it comes from a space of deep affection for what The Incredibles was able to imbibe and so anything else added to the canon is going to come under a lot of scrutiny.

Where it counts The Incredibles 2 is a worthwhile outing with flashes of nostalgia that can easily pass for rediscovered thrills. Filled in by the stellar, fresh animation and Michael Giaccomo’s score, it might be easy to claim contentment.

That doesn’t mean we cannot still hang on to some of our minor qualms. Because if anything they remain as a testament to how special the original installment was and that is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means we can cherish the first film even more.

4/5 Stars

Murphy’s Romance (1985)

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Despite the pure 80s-ness of the synths, I cannot help but be charmed by Carol King’s vocals in the opening track to go along with an entire score she composed for this film. It introduces an understated tale of a young divorced mother (Sally Field) and her son (Corey Haim) who are setting up camp and a new life for themselves. It’s a real fixer-upper they’ve acquired, epitomized by Sally Field chucking her boot at a rat as it scurries back into the shadows. 

However, she is defined by a do-it-yourself mentality — the of kind quality we admire in her within the first few scenes. In spite of a lack of capital, they make the shell of a ranch into a real home that’s livable even as they are still trying to come to terms with the alien community they now find themselves in.

In many ways, the rural Arizona town proves to be an analogous slice of Middle America with much of what Martin Ritt captured over the course of his career from the Huds to the Norma Raes of the world. This particular one has a local druggist named Murphy (James Garner), a widower who drives an antique car with a windshield plastered with a couple of his prime causes.

In his first interaction with Mrs. Emma Moriarty, he describes his home impeccably with four words, “Small, warm, and nosy.” It becomes instantly familiar. What we have on our hands resonates with me for the simple fact I recognize this small town. Not because I lived in it — not by a long shot — but I’ve spent time in such places just passing through or visiting family. We see at least one old friend in Charles Lane, the chipper elderly man who has found love again at the ripe young age of 89.

Otherwise, Murphy is quite the local celebrity. It seems like every middle-aged lady is having him over for bridge or dinner — something nice like that — so much so that most of his evenings are booked up. He’s a generally hot commodity and people like him. Emma soon sees his charm too. She struggles to get a loan at the bank to jumpstart her business to train and board horses because she’s a woman. The town still holds to those archaic traditions.

Though he won’t give her money outright, Murphy does bless her in more subtle ways. First, by introducing her into the folds of the tight-knit community and also directing business her way — starting with the fine horse he buys at a local auction. It’s in these scenes Garner and Field build a rapport that feels about as genuine as they come. While not necessarily romantic, they begin to enjoy each other’s company and the chemistry continues to grow. They care about one another.

The most obvious complication in the story occurs when Emma’s former husband Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin) comes back to town. It’s as much to mooch money off his former spouse as it is to see their son whom he has all but neglected.  

The fact the casting seems poor might contribute to the fact that Field is simply such a mismatch for her husband. They have little in common as far as interest or vision or overall drive. He has zilch — prizing partying and good times over any type of breadwinning integrity. If anything she supports his leech-like ways.

A bit of Bret Maverick starts coming to the surface again, most memorably over a poker game where Garner coolly calls Bobby out to the porch to have a talk with him. He’s also not too interested in the gory human hamburger, monster movies at the local movie theater that coincidentally enthrall Bobby. This is coming from a man who hasn’t watched a movie since The Duke died. When he’s had enough he walks out and sits on a bench to chew the fat.  

As ludicrous as it seems, a bit of a tug of war begins. Even as Murphy feels a tad too old to be courting Emma, Bobby Jack has no right to her based on his lack of character. The older gentleman gets his new acquaintances into the Elk’s Club for Bingo night. There are ensuing feuds between Murphy and his jealous rival on the dance floor defusing themselves through comedy. Bobby’s renewed advances on Emma far from being passionate conclude with sneezing in the hay. Then, things take an even weirder turn when the loafing ex-husband gets his own visitor. 

Ultimately, it is a birthday part providing a stage to look over a life and give thanks for an existence full of relationships. We’re back to the small-town atmosphere again. The near lackadaisical pacing plays a part in it too. 

In an age of R-rated comedies, action films, and whatever else, Murphy’s Romance is in danger of being railroaded by its more ostentatious competition. But the fact there is no gratuitous sex or violence remains its ace in the hole. Instead, it relies wholly on the grace of its two stars who more than oblige.

Truthfully, in my mind, there would be little reason to watch this slight story without Sally Field and James Garner. The fact Brando was initially wanted for the part is nearly laughable. He couldn’t pull it off like his Sayonara (1957) costar and the chemistry with Sally Field would not have gelled in the same exquisite manner. 

Field lent such peppy candor to parts all the way back to her Gidget days, which saw her bloom into a quality talent with perennially accessible charm. It’s important for Garner to be just as approachable — a man who often asserted he never wanted anyone to catch him acting — he’s so natural, making it all look easy. We like him for it.

Their conversations amble along — the way real people interact — people who have made mistakes and deal with them in the normal way. People who manage kinship through an invitation for dinner there or a random act of kindness here. They harbor jealousy, don’t always say what they’re feeling, and their love language is connotated through quality time more than anything else.

Murphy’s Romance is charming for precisely this understatement. Tact is something so often lacking in this hypercharged world of ours. The romance mentioned in the title is warranted but some viewers might be taken aback by how it exerts itself. There is an underlying decency and a tenderness to it all.

3.5/5 Stars

 

The Americanization of Emily (1964)

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“Don’t show me how profitable it will be to fall in love with you, Charlie. Don’t Americanize me.” – Julie Andrews as Emily

Yes, Kubrick’s film is definitive. Though something inside of me wants to rale against convention and wave the flag for The Americanization of Emily instead, a movie that came out the same year as Dr. Strangelove (1964) and could probably use the acknowledgment. While not technically as renowned — Arthur Hiller is no Stanley Kubrick — this is probably the director’s best work and we do have a script by Paddy Chayefsky, the man famed for penning everything from Marty (1955) to Network (1976).

Our stars are to die for in James Garner and Julie Andrews while in its satirical bleakness, the movie predates the absurdity of Mike Nichol’s Catch-22 (1970) adaptation or Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). At any rate, it deserves a place in the conversation among the seminal anti-war statements of the 20th century.

Though Chayefsky can get verbose with his quill, it’s all quite eloquent; between the stars and the dilemma they find themselves in, the resonance of The Americanization of Emily cannot be overstated. It starts with of all things a “Dog-Robber,” the pet name and vernacular shorthand used for personal assistants of military big wigs.

Garner always the conman, grifter, or otherwise likable trickster, is seamlessly fit to play Charlie Madison, a rapscallion who is also very good at his line of work. As right-hand man to Rear Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas), Charlie is tasked with laying out the red carpet for his superior, charming and cajoling his way to get the best of the best. That means the finest food and the most charming female company that wartime Britain has to offer.

A couple of the assumed premises of the picture are troubling, starting with the prevalence of what can only be termed “tush slaps” of nearly every female attendant. Nearly everyone seems to enjoy the attention. The second is how the war takes a back seat as does the fact, despite Man being infallible and the reasons for war being muddied, Hitler was seemingly a power that necessitated some counteraction. For that matter, D-Day feels like it’s an open secret among every Tom, Dick, and Harry.

But this is all part of the groundwork which all comes into relief as we begin to visualize the story. Consequently, it doesn’t much feel like a bombed out or rationed Great Britain at any point in time. There’s little need for historical accuracy — the trail of a cynical war comedy with all its biting fury is what’s most importantly on display.

After getting off on the wrong foot, Charlie and his assigned chauffeur Emily (Andrew) joust a bit only to fall into each other’s arms. She brings him over to tea with mother and there he sees the shrine to all the deceased war heroes in their family (a lah Hail the Conquering Hero). Except Charlie sets the record straight on what he thinks of war and how other people go about it. Some might consider him callous but the way he sees it, being brutally honest, in such a case, is the most humane thing to do.

Mrs. Barnham has long been pressing on in life as if her son was still alive. However, Charlie brings the tea conversation to the cold hard facts. In his estimation, it’s the most profane thing in the world to enjoy war. Enjoyment in the same sense that he sees grieving as a sensual thing for a woman — when she can mourn her husband who gave his life so gallantly for his country. He doesn’t see anything noble about needlessly making heroes of our dead, venerating them, instead of allowing them to rest in peace.

When probed about his religious views, he retorts quite blatantly he’s “a practicing coward.” He learned it in Guadalcanal in the midst of buddies dropping all around him. “Wars are the only time a man can be gallant and redeemed. Wars are always fought for goodness, except virtue is so unnatural to us. God save us all from people doing the morally right thing.” These are little nuggets of wisdom he drops.

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The complete absurdity of it all comes into focus when his commanding officer cooks up a cockamamie plan to shoot a movie during the storming of Normandy to capture the first dead man on the beach — who will obviously be a sailor — proving to the world that the Navy is just as important as anyone else. They know he’s really flipped when Admiral Jessup dreams up the Tomb for the Unknown Sailor too.

Still, no one has the gumption to disobey so Charlie’s buddy Bus (James Coburn) looks to stall operations as long as possible and yet, in the end, they find themselves hurtling toward Normandy on an utterly pointless suicide mission. Except Bus gets bitten by the patriotic bug too and goes nutty for his duty with Charlie and his lackluster movie crew hoisted onto the LST like stray cargo. They’re going whether they like it or not.

The comedy is solidified for me in the D-Day sequences as Charlie finds himself dumped out in the ocean, flailing around in the cold, half-heartedly trying to hold onto a camera he doesn’t know how to use, probably already decommissioned by sea water. It’s utterly pointless. Here he is amid the chaos with his former friend goading him on only to wing him with a pistol in the process. Charlie’s left for dead but on the bright side, at least he’s positioned himself as the first casualty on the beaches of Normandy — a navy man, no less.

True to form, the images of him are soon plastered all over every magazine back home. He’s been christened a hero and every type of idolatry he would never care to give anyone else is lofted on him. It’s far from done, rolling over on itself one final time.

There must be continuous punchlines to underscore the sheer looniness of it all. Whereas a picture like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) is bleakly cynical, here James Garner is able to inject his grouchy strain of comedy into the part, aiding the story to its conclusion. But the final zinger goes to Julie Andrews as she is and always will be his equal in the film.

“Honestly, Charlie, your conversion to morality is really quite funny. All this time I’ve been terrified of becoming Americanized, and you, you silly ass, have turned into a bloody Englishman.”

So you see, it might have just as easily been called the Anglification of Charlie. There you have the irony at work again. Somehow it makes sense and it doesn’t at the same time. That’s war in a nutshell.

4/5 Stars

The Search (1948)

The_Search_posterAny knowledge of director Fred Zinnemann only aids in informing The Search. Formerly living in a Jewish family in Austria, he would immigrate to the bright lights of Hollywood in the 1930s only to have both his parents killed in the Holocaust. So if you think he had no stake in this picture you would be gravely mistaken.

Like Carol Reed’s Third Man of the following year, Fred Zinnemann’s film does an impeccable job in its opening moments placing us in a landscape that feels all but tangible. Improved by true post-war locales, The Search gives audiences a fairly frank depiction of the trauma and destruction left in the wake of such an all-encompassing wave of carnage like WWII.

At least in this area alone, there is no sense that this is a facade or something fake and done up to look real. There’s little of that. Not least among the casualties are children displaced from all different nations and backgrounds. Subsisting without families through much of the war.

Now, with the clouds dissipating there is work to be done. It’s the task of understaffed personnel to begin sorting through all the pieces to try and get everyone back where they need to be. It seems an insurmountable job but they get on as best as they can.

Mrs. Murray is one of the workers we get to know, a woman with both a sense of pragmatic industry but also an underlying warmth. She knows if her job is done well, there will be many children given far better lives. She does everything in her power toward those ends.

Carrying a few points of reference from Aline MacMahon’s early career, it truly is a joy to watch her fall into this role which is a stark departure from the likes of One Way Passage (1932) or Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). Certainly, it’s less flashy but no less meaningful. She makes it count.

The pure ambiguities created by language barriers is made palpable and for American viewers, there is a narrator but little in the way of interpretation. So much of what goes on is either left unsaid or must be taken with a grain of salt. That’s compounded by the fact the reticent children are afraid men in uniforms might be SS troopers or any word they let slip will be subsequently used to send them away to a concentration camp.

While it’s near impossible to take on two viewpoints at once, at any rate, we begin to understand not only Mrs. Murray’s predicament but also the well-founded fears of these displaced youths. That’s what leads one group of children, crammed into an ambulance marked with an ominous red cross, to scatter at the first opportunity. One includes a pale-faced boy named Karel who has remained all but silent during his initial questioning and yet his will to survive is insurmountable. Still, one needs food to survive and he doesn’t have any.

This problem is what prompts the initial meeting of the two figures who we might consider our heroes. It actually happens 40 minutes in and it nearly doesn’t amount to anything at all. Sitting in his jeep, lazily kicked back, eating a sandwich, is an army engineer named Steve (Montgomery Clift) who is soon being shipped back home.

He sees a small body pop up behind some rubble obviously eyeing his lunch. The boy’s afraid to take a handout and so the soldier puts his jeep in gear to drive off but thinking better of it, he turns around and tosses the boy his sandwich. Here we have the genesis of their curious relationship, at first tenuous, because Karel has learned to fear other people and their lack of formal communication lines makes mutual understanding even more difficult.

Though not as intense as his most revered parts, Monty Clift provides a genuine charm to the role, an all but effortless job at character building. Young Ivan Jandl knew no English going into the shoot but this same undoctored quality makes the opening sequences all the more imperative. He and Clift build a rapport that’s right there in front of us.

Initially, Karel lashes out thinking he is being held prisoner again. Steve tries to get him to understand his newfound freedom and when that is established, next comes the acquisition of language which the bright boy picks up quickly. One could say that The Search is at its finest when the pair is stuck in a space together. I’m not sure about others but I resonate with these scenes. The moments where a language barrier necessitates some form of universal understanding. Words have no meaning. Like in Film itself, actions can be far more universal than any amount of exquisite dialogue. For example, chocolate tastes “good.” Alcohol smells “bad.”

Together the soldier and the boy form a bond to the point Karel follows him around like a lost puppy. He doesn’t want to be abandoned. Not again. Of course, we know Steve must ship out soon… Meanwhile, Mrs. Murray enlists the help of a concentration camp survivor (Jarmila Novotná) who is looking determinedly for her son — the dramatic irony all but apparent, if it wasn’t already.

As Steve begins to teach “Jim” English lessons, he and his buddy Jerry (Wendell Corey) try and get some news on the boy’s origins. And all they have to go on is the telling tattoo on his forearm. It’s the arrival of family from stateside that sets something off. A switch goes on inside of Jim’s brain and he realizes he needs to find his “mother” because he comes to understand what that word means and that his is missing.

The Search endangers itself with a melodramatic turn of events and to a degree, they do come. Speaking for myself, I was a most agreeable recipient if that’s what it was. With the trills of angelic voices and a final maternal embrace — the conclusion the entire film has been charted for — some emotional manipulation might be on hand. However, in a period of rebuilding, though the past must not be forgotten, nevertheless, there is a deep abiding need for hope.  I would like to think that The Search is a film acknowledging precisely that and offering some solace.

Out of all the bombed out buildings, emaciated children racked with trauma, and horrors upon horrors, there is still something that can and must be clung to. When we are lost and alone, we can be found and returned to the place where we belong. There is no need to wander aimlessly because we have a home. Whether or not you believe this picture to be a purveyor of authenticity, Zinnemann has provided a revelatory parable of genuine sensitivity. I for one admire its aspirations greatly even if they might be imperfect. Such a time calls for this kind of hope.

4.5/5 Stars

Leave No Trace (2018)

Leave_No_Trace.pngLeave No Trace instantly reminded me of two distinct reference points. The first relates to a man named Richard Proenneke who lived in the Alaskan wilderness for 30 years building his own cabin and raising his own food in a life of tranquil solitude.

Then, the other comes from a book I read when I was a kid called My Side of a Mountain, written by Jean Craighead George, following a young man who literally goes out into a forest, builds himself a home hewn out of a tree, and subsists off the land. The common themes running through these narratives are already quite obvious.

If you’re like me, especially in this technology-saturated world of ours, sometimes it seems like we’re pretty helpless and ever plugged into our devices. But some of us look at such stories and see a sense of romanticism. It seems like a nice idea — like a picnic or going camping — out communing with nature. Except it only goes so far. We love to read about it and live vicariously through others but we stop short of getting involved ourselves.

The pair existing in Leave No Trace is actually up to the challenge of living this life on the move, out in an Oregon nature reserve, surviving off the land, and in so many ways remaining self-sufficient. They are far closer than many of us can probably ever comprehend. Because everything they do has near life and death consequences. You don’t live as they do without getting close and forming a bond. There is no other way to exist aside from constant symbiosis.

The father, Will (Ben Foster), a former member of the military, has passed down so many practical skills to his daughter, training her up to survive out in the wild. It’s like an extreme version of homeschooling. Tom’s (Thomasin Mackenzie) social skills are lacking but if you stacked her up against anyone her age she’s probably more resourceful and capable than any of them. Because her brain has not been programmed by technology nor is it awash in a world of a vacuous glut of constant stimuli. Their total immersion in nature is refreshing as is their independence and very stripped down lifestyle.

But this journey is particularly worthwhile because it is still set in our world and so these two very unique individuals are forced to brush up against society and the norms in place. Technically, they are trespassing and so in a way they take on the mantle of fugitives constantly on the run as nomads dodging the authorities. You can only hide and break camp and get away so long. Even for people as attuned and regimented as them, there’s always a slip-up.

Now there are good folks in the world — social workers and then common, ordinary people who try and give them a leg up. There are ways to get Tom and her dad back into society without completing severing their ties with the naturalism that is most comfortable for them.

It is a story about a relationship, a very close-knit relationship between a father and daughter. But it becomes a story of maturation as well. Tom realizes her dad is hardwired a certain way. Whether it is restless feet, the demons of post-traumatic stress, or some unnamed specter, he’s constantly dodging, or simply discontent with modern society. He is never capable of settling down.

Meanwhile, she is willing to make allowances and sculpts each place they find together into a new home. Still, it never feels like she’s selling out completely. True, she’s enamored with a new bicycle and mentions in passing how having a phone would make it easier to communicate and yet the core aspects of her character do not waver. Tom still maintains her immense inquisitiveness and affection for all flora and fauna in the great outdoors. She loves dogs, makes friends over rabbits and honeybees. These are the places she is truly in her element.

However, she is also a willing participant, ready to enmesh herself in an ecosystem of people. She gets comfortable around the relationships she makes and yearns to set roots down somewhere. The great revelation comes when she realizes her father can never be that. Instead of always following his lead, she becomes more and more of her own person, making her own decisions. It has nothing to do with a split or not loving him anymore. This is about being mature enough to let other people go and being okay with the realization.

Read only as words on the page, Leave No Trace could be chock full of high drama but it wins its victories through the subtility of its leads and the more nuanced touches to fill in around the naturalism and bevy of sojourning survival tactics. Debra Granik directs the movie with an eye attuned to relationships and while generally unadorned, the movie is full of wonderment in the world’s natural beauty.

It exhibits the lush greenery quintessential to the rainy, fresh imagery that the Oregon coast conjures up. There is arguably no better film that I’ve seen to capture this environ in all its verdant glory. While a completely different sort of film, I could not but for a moment recall one of the greenest films to ever be on the silver screen, The Quiet Man. Because whether romantic or familial there’s no question the milieu of a film is so crucial in fashioning how we perceive a cinematic experience. Like its predecessor, Leave No Trace is a roaring success channeled through tranquil trails of its own creation. Sometimes those trails must break off and lead toward different destinations. Being content in moving on is key.

4/5 Stars