THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December, 2017)

December 12-Unfaithfully Yours (1948, Preston Sturges, 4th Viewing)

To find out if Sturges can take off from noir the way the rest of his career took off from John Ford’s movies with Will Rogers. With each viewing,  I feel him inching closer, the way Rex Harrison keeps getting closer to having off his wife’s head–or his own–just because she’s so lovely in every way.

December 12-Emma (1996, Douglas McGrath, 3rd Viewing)

Because I’ve been wondering if Gwyneth Paltrow’s star-making performance–distributed by Harvey Weinstein’s company either just before or just after he tried to molest her (I haven’t been able to get the timeline straight even in the context of assuming everybody who is now on the record remembers everything just the way it was)–holds up.

It does.

And everything good around it, which is just about everything, is still good.

I watched it the first time as a rental. That was right after I saw Paltrow interviewed on Charlie Rose. Surrounded by snakes she was. Jane Austen must have seemed like a godsend. Any Jane Austen. But especially Emma, who is loved and valued to exactly the extent she keeps her mean streak cloaked under velvet manners. I think this might become a favorite.

December 13-Blast of Silence (1961, Allen Baron, 2nd Viewing)

To see if I missed anything the first time around. I don’t think so. This is a good, solid little noir which has gained enough of a reputation to merit a Criterion release. I’ll probably watch it again–it might make a great early sixties New York double bill with The Apartment.  But my old problem will always arise: outside Patricia Highsmith, I’m just not that interested in psychopaths. Not even the ones who are trying to convince me they want to go straight.

December 14-Alexander the Great (1956, Robert Rossen, 1st Viewing)

I’m treating this as a first viewing even though it might be a second…and the first may not have been that long ago. I’m too tired to look it up, but if this is a second viewing, I might have revisited it to see if Richard Burton can get past that blonde wig.

There’s something a bit off about the whole exercise and that no-doubt-period-accurate wig (I can’t conceive another reason to make Richard Burton, of all people, look like Little Lord Fauntleroy) exemplifies the picture’s stagnant, occasionally ornery nature. The history’s not bad. The sets are often magnificent and there are individual scenes that work well.

Still, it’s missing something.

It’s too bad Land of the Pharaohs, released the previous year, wasn’t a hit. Joan Collins might have spiced this right up.

December 14-Body Double (1984, Brian DePalma, 1st Viewing)

Because I saw it for a buck in a local thrift shop and I was in the mood for some DePalma I hadn’t seen.

I won’t be in the mood for this again anytime soon. I’d rather have my chest drilled, like one of DePalma’s victims. That shot above is the best thing in the movie. One could be fooled by it into thinking this might be worth two hours of your time.

Don’t be fooled.

December 17-Point Break (1991, Kathryn Bigelow, 3rd Viewing)

For the action scenes, which just keep coming. They’re among the best in modern cinema and have proved to be Kathryn Bigelow’s real calling card even as she’s moved on to Oscar bait high concept stuff.

And for Patrick Swayze’s performance as a sociopath with enough real charisma to make you understand why a fellow danger jockey like Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah might fall for him even after the mask has come all the way off.

Plus a bunch of real life surfers who give you a tantalizing look into a culture that’s a long way from Dick Dale or Endless Summer.

Besides, there’s not really a higher concept than surfing bank robbers.

December 18-Cheyenne Autumn (1964, John Ford, Not Quite Umpteenth Viewing)

I guess I’ve seen this about half-a-dozen times now. For me and a Ford film, that’s just getting started.

It’s an odd, late entry in the Ford canon. Like a lot of his less-than-great films it divides people, sometimes bitterly.

I’m not in the “hidden masterpiece” camp, but I keep coming back to it.

Every time, I think it won’t work: That Richard Widmark not being John Wayne and Carroll Baker not being Vera Miles and Mike Mazurki not being Victor McLaglen and baby-faced Sal Mineo not making much of an Indian is just too much working against it even before the flat ending.

But, every time, I see so many good things in it–the long opening sequence, as fine as anything Ford ever did, the haunting shot of Karl Malden’s decent-but-blustering fort commander contemplating the carnage wrought by his own incompetence before he wanders into the snow, Mazurki’s “Cossack” scene, where he turns out to be pretty damn close to Victor McLaglen after all–I know I’ll always come back.

Late Ford, old Ford, sick Ford, conflicted Ford. It’s still Ford.

December 20-Black Rain (1984, Ridley Scott, 4th Viewing)

Because there aren’t enough Kate Capshaw movies, not even ones where she’s underutilized. And because, come to think of it, there aren’t enough movies where Michael Douglas gets to play a good guy, even if he’s a good guy with some more than rough edges…meaning there aren’t enough movies where Michael Douglas gets to play scenes no other actor of his generation could play so well and which happen over and over here.

And because only Ridley Scott could make modern Tokyo look and feel like an underworld.

If not the Underworld.

December 20-Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, Rian Johnson, 1st Viewing)

Because it’s showing at the mall and it’s that time again. (More, perhaps, in next month’s At the Multiplex. For the record, after a close run during the first hour, I enjoyed it.)

December 21-The Man Who Never Was (1956, Ronald Neame, 3rd Viewing)

Because better a just-going-to-seed Gloria Grahame (already…by 1956!) playing an almost good girl with a broken heart than no Gloria Grahame at all.

And for a lovely ending, of which the modern world, where we can dream anything we like, did not turn out to be worthy.

Great poster, though.

Til next time….

FAVORITE FILMS….FOR EACH YEAR OF MY LIFE…BY DECADE…CUE THE NINETIES

Are we having fun yet?…Actually, this decade was better than I thought…at least at the top.

At least if you don’t bring none of them boring old morals into it.

Still dreading the post-millennium.

1990 The Grifters (Stephen Frears) (and what a way to open a Decade of Decline!…over Bad Influence, Metropolitan and Pump Up the Volume)

1991 The Doors (Oliver Stone) (over Robin Hood (Patrick Bergin version), JFK (Oliver Stone’s one good year!) and Point Break (still Kathryn Bigelow’s best)

1992 The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (Curtis Hanson) (over One False Move and The Player)

 

1993 Gettysburg (Ron Maxwell) (over Schindler’s List, The Fugitive, Groundhog Day, Matinee and The Wrong Man)

1994 Fresh (Boaz Yakin) (over Barcelona and Ed Wood (Tim Burton’s best…by miles))

1995 To Die For (Gus Van Sant) (over Mighty Aphrodite, Sense and Sensibility and Toy Story)

1996 Grace of My Heart (Allison Anders) (over Freeway, Jerry McGuire and That Thing You Do)

1997 Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson) (over Grosse Pointe Blank, Jackie Brown and The Peacemaker)

1998 A Perfect Murder (Andrew Davis) (over Shakespeare in Love, Croupier and The Mask of Zorro)

1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella) (over Ride With the Devil and, by the thinnest of margins, Dick…if only because “the nineties” was not a decade that deserved to die laughing)

Next, the new millennium…feel my heart go pitter-patter.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Holding Patterns and Subterranean Connections Generate Mild Disturbances in My Brain…I Strive to Move Forward)

Rio Grande DIrector: John Ford (1951)

American Sniper Director: Clint Eastwood (2014)

Sergeant York DIrector: Howard Hawks (1941)

Zero Dark Thirty Director: Kathryn Bigelow (2012)

RIOGRANDE1

This sort of thing usually starts innocently enough.

I’ve been taking a break from Ford. For me, that means going maybe three months without watching any of his movies for the umpteenth time. So this week I got back around to Rio Grande, the austere, black-and-white finishing touch on the Cavalry Trilogy, made on the quick as the price for getting Republic Pictures’ famously penurious Herb Yates to back The Quiet Man, which Ford had been nursing for years, if not decades.

As always, when I’ve been trying to push Ford to one side, half-convincing myself that some of those lean, mean, craftsman-helmed westerns from the Golden Age that make the genre so bottomless (recent go-to’s include Rawhide, Yellow Sky, The Law and Jake Wade….one could go on) are so good Ford can’t really be all that much better, I’m shocked all over again once I let him back into the center.

Rio Grande has to run fast and hard to make it into Ford’s top fifteen…one of his “jobs of work.” But, as always the jump from everybody else’s top drawer to Ford’s middle ground is dramatic, like going from a set of finely wrought short stories to a great middle-length novel plucked from a shelf full of even greater novels. I know there are people who think short stories are a higher, purer form than novels and all I can say is, well, everybody has a right to be wrong.

But even as I was noticing new elements in Ford’s way with narrative, all the obvious things he chooses to leave out not merely to speed things along in the usual style or even to evade obviousness but to validate the breadth of his canvas, to effectively say, “I can go anywhere with this and even if I don’t, it’ll feel like I might have,” my rock ‘n’ roll mind, forever at work, suddenly churned up the notion that Ford was Bob Dylan (stark, jagged, dissociative, barbed, weird)  and Howard Hawks was the Beatles (clever, puckish, organized, forthright, orderly). Or, if you like, Dylan and the Beatles were Ford and Hawks brought forward.

Now, you can kick something like that around until you kick it to death or you can leave it alone and let it sit until it either hangs together or falls part under persistent intellectual mastication disorder. For now, I’m leaving it alone (though the notion of Ford and Hawks as twinned engines pulling in opposite directions has been on my mind for a while), but since I finally made it to a theater at a time when American Sniper was playing (third try, long story, my own stupid fault, let’s move along) and since, in my heart of hearts, I suspect Clint Eastwood would be John Ford if he possibly could and that maybe he hasn’t even quite given up on the idea, I can’t leave it entirely alone.

Not with the world on fire and everything.

AMERICANSNIPER1

I had some awareness of the “controversy” surrounding American Sniper and any relation it might have to how we’re all supposed-to-feel, are-feeling, might-feel, do-feel, can’t-feel, don’t-dare-feel, don’t-dare-not-feel about the “Iraq War” or the “Second Iraq War” or the “War on Terror” or “The Mistake” or whatever that particular phase of our quarter-century and counting conflict in the Middle East that happened to coincide with Chris Kyle’s tours of duty is being called this week.

I also had a strong sense that the controversy was breaking down along the usual lines.

You know how it works: the Right believes we’ve finally got a pro-American Iraq War film on our hands and the people are proving their support for the war that was by flocking to the box office, while the Left believes the Right just might have a dreadful point so let’s all go to our respective corners and come out shadow-boxing until our arms get tired and weasel-honor is satisfied. It’s all okay.

I mean, as long as nobody threatens the pre-existing assumptions.

Don’t worry. No one has.

Look. Ford always matters. A decade or so back, the great critic Molly Haskell wrote about fretting over a showing of The Searchers organized for inner-city kids. Living in a world where lots of film school profs at elite universities report kids being bored by Ford or even (per Tag Gallagher) getting angry and walking out of class, she worried they wouldn’t like it, wouldn’t get it, wouldn’t connect, etc.

Her fears were, perhaps unsurprisingly, unfounded. Turned out kids who had been raised on Biggie and Tupac got Ethan Edwards, Chief Scar and ten-thousand-year-old male honor codes quite well. I suspect they would have had no trouble understanding Rio Grande, either, with its main theme of a single mother willing to go any length to protect her only child from a world defined by violence.

Still, it might have only been serendipitous that I started thinking specifically about Ford and Hawks while watching Ford during the week I happened to catch American Sniper (and, incidentally, also happened to catch Sniper star/producer Bradley Cooper and screenwriter Jason Hall on Charlie Rose, where Hall said the whole thing clicked during an early conversation where they thought of it specifically in terms of a western).

Then again, it might be a case of the bleeding obvious. I mean, the subconscious isn’t necessarily subversive or indirect or freely-associative just because it lies beneath. It might just be trying to tell you something. In this case, probably something like, “Hey, you’ve been trying to see American Sniper since it came out and you’ll probably actually make it this week, doofus, so it’s not exactly a stretch to assume that this is going to be a modern version of Sergeant York, which is one of the two attempts (Red River, which Ford helped edit, being the other) that Hawks made at being Ford-ian, so think about linking all that up will you?”

SGTYORK

Seriously, I was prepared to leave it alone, subconscious or no subconscious, but then American Sniper turned out to be, at least on the surface, a pretty straightforward modern take on Sergeant York.

Clint Eastwood trying to be John Ford by imitating Howard Hawks imitating John Ford.

So–o-o-o?

Well, like Sergeant York, American Sniper is a well-crafted-not-quite-great film about a war hero. Like Chris Kyle, Alvin York was a southerner raised on religion and hunting. Like York, Kyle was a freakishly superb shot and a bit of a roustabout. Both movies make a stab at tying each man’s heroics to the particulars of his upbringing and the moral conclusions each man reached (in their respective movies but, on the evidence, also in life) were markedly similar.

Killing is terrible.

The only thing worse is watching other men kill your friends because you failed to stop them. So both movies are fundamentally about men trying to define their honor through religion, courtship rituals, family loyalty and, finally, the cauldron of warfare.

There’s one big difference, of course.

Alvin York fought in an actual war, one which had the only object actual wars ever have, which is to take and hold all the ground that’s necessary for your enemy to give up hope.

Chris Kyle, who likely saw even more (and more intense) combat, fought in a shadow war, a sort of kabuki-theater-of-the-absurd where he was continually asked to supply the purpose the culture he volunteered to represent and the political leaders he volunteered to serve denied him with malice aforethought.

The sensible question to ask about Eastwood’s film then, is this: Does it capture what its like to fight in such a war.

In short, for any flaws it might have (and it certainly has them) it does this one essential thing superbly.

Whether or not they might have shared my experience of passing a television in the lobby of the theater on the way out that was tuned to CNN and showing the headline “Obama Asks for War Powers Against ISIS,” in front of Wolf Blitzer’s perpetually benumbed expression, anyone who emerges from this film thinking gee, I want a piece of that, is either seriously delusional or psychotic.

Because, in truth, any similarity to Sergeant York is superficial, just as any similarity between York and a Ford film is superficial.

1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty

A much better comparison is between Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty, a film which raised similar conversations (and similar evasions) on both sides two years back, though the roles were rather neatly reversed, thanks to director Kathryn Bigelow being perceived as reliably Liberal in the same way that Clint Eastwood is perceived as reliably Conservative.

However much Chris Kyle had in common with Alvin York, in life or on film, he had/has a much deeper bond with Zero Dark Thirty‘s heroine, Jessica Chastain’s “Maya,” a fictional character based on a real life CIA operative.

He ends by understanding what she understands to begin with:

Shadow Wars produce Shadow Warriors….and Shadow Results.

That’s what all those various pronouncements of “victory” that have linked Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama really mean.

Nothing.

Well, that, and anybody who serves will be forced to play the Shadow Game one way or another.

Whether that’s what Eastwood meant, or even what Bigelow meant, is impossible to tell. Whatever they ever have or ever will talk about, it never has and never will be about that. War is not an option for either our culture or our political leadership. Neither is Peace.

That’s the difference between the No-Peace-No-Honor America we now all inhabit and the one Ford, the old-fashioned, out-of-step throwback, alone among Hollywood directors in forever looking backwards to better see around the corner, knew could so easily come to pass.

For what its worth, there’s a $300 million smash at the box office, which, knowingly or unknowingly, is carrying the same basic message all those “anti-war” flops carried.

We’re all Shadow Warriors now.

And even Clint Eastwood knows, as we prepare to retake some piece of Iraq yet again so we can give it back yet again, that we will win no more wars.

Which means there’s only one way for this week to end around here…a long way past the Beatles or even Dylan. Past everyone mentioned here. Except, you know, John Ford.

 

 

 

WHERE DID THE DANGEROUS MEN GO? (Or…As long as men are in charge, never underestimate the power of “I think I can take that guy!” to determine the course of human affairs.)

Now that I’m starting in earnest on my John Ford journey here, I’ve been seriously researching sites with intelligent things to say about the western in general and Ford in particular. To that end, in addition to April Lane’s great “Directed By John Ford” site (which I linked to a few weeks ago), I’ve added two of the best–”50 Westerns From the 50s” and “Riding the High Country”–to the blog roll. I strongly encourage anyone who is interested in a broader perspective than I’m likely to pursue here to visit those sites (and check their blog rolls as well). Even if you think you know a lot about classic westerns, you’ll almost certainly learn something and have a lot of fun doing it.

Just by coincidence, something in Colin’s latest piece here hooked up with something that struck me recently after seeing Zero Dark Thirty. This, in turn, fanned some dying embers back into a flame and revived a nagging idea I was on the verge of leaving for some other time (which might have been next week or never…all you fellow writers out there know how these things go).

The whole thing is worth reading, but here’s the quote that caught my particular attention:

“Richard Boone’s crafty and cunning Grimes is the ideal foil to Newman’s motionless and emotionless Russell. Boone gave countless performances that were straight out of the top drawer and Grimes has to rank up there among the finest. He had a real knack for conveying a quiet threat – there was always the feeling that here was a man it would be foolish to cross.”

(NOTE: I don’t intend this as a serious think piece or anything…just having some fun with a few thoughts that have crossed my mind in the past few weeks….Please bear that in mind if anything from here forward starts to threaten your blood pressure!)

To go back to Zero Dark Thirty: for me, one of the more fascinating aspects of the film–fascinating because so much effort has been made to assure everyone of its general veracity (with the usual caveats regarding fictional portrayals of real events, etc.)–was how distinctly unthreatening the Navy Seals were.

I want to be careful here, because quite obviously the actual Seals who killed Osama Bin Laden by performing an extremely difficult and dangerous mission were genuinely hard men in a way one would never expect any professional actor to be. And, for all I know, real life Seals look, sound and behave very much like those in the film. (Certainly the only one who has come forward to be publicly identified does not radiate the aura of a man “it would be foolish to cross.”)

So it could very well be that Kathryn Bigelow was given a chance to observe some actual Seals, got a vibe from them, and cast actors who fit that vibe perfectly.

But what I do find myself wondering is this: What if she had really wanted a few dangerous-seeming men to play those roles?

What if any modern Hollywood director wants even one dangerous-seeming man to play ANY role?

Who exactly would they get?

I’ve put some thought into it and I’ve come up with….exactly no one.

I know it’s a subjective question. Doubtless there are people who saw George Clooney in The American or Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James…or Samuel Jackson in whatever, and thought “Boy, I’m sure glad I was never on the wrong side of that one in a bar fight!”

But I don’t think it’s really all that subjective. Not when we cast our collective memories back.

I mean, these modern choices might convince a few people. But it’s not that long ago when there was no “subjective” to it. When all but a few were convinced. And the men who did the convincing did so with little or no apparent effort.

In other words, if you wanted somebody to play a role that called for an unspoken aura of a man it would be “dangerous to cross” there were real choices.

Not just second line stars like Boone or Lee Van Cleef, but first line ones. Robert Mitchum, say, or Lee Marvin. Or character men like Neville Brand and Aldo Ray. I’m naming only the very most obvious, those that spring first to mind. Certainly any old movie fan could name several dozen more who would–and did–look the part of men ready to be sent to the most dangerous places.

Some of these older “types” actually were hard men in life (not a few had served in WWII or Korea themselves) and some of them were probably cream-puffs when the cameras weren’t rolling. We can all probably have a fun game trying to decide which were which.

But I still think it’s interesting to compare the changing “appearances-vs-realities” dynamics. To contrast one era’s version of an ideal to another era’s version of same….and it’s worth asking if the disappearance of the former ideal from popular culture reflects an almost insane confidence. (“Got terrorists? Don’t worry…we’ve rounded up some dudes from the bar down the street and outfitted ’em with the latest technology. They’ll be along shortly to hold your hand or burn your town as needed!”)…or a complete lack thereof (“This is the best we got, the elite of the elite. Think what the hell would happen if we had to actually wage war!”)

That the good old U.S.A. still has men who can carry out dangerous real life missions is unquestionable. That we still have some number of men (and perhaps women as well) who could perform the even more difficult task of taking and holding the ground that would need to be taken and held for missions such as the one celebrated in Zero Dark Thirty to become unnecessary, is also unquestionable.

But we used to have enough such men that their presence was mainstream–all but taken for granted. So many that it was probably inevitable that a few of them–or a few skilled actors who had the chance to observe them first hand–would end up burning holes in movie screens.

If it were ever to become absolutely necessary–not to having better movies, but to, you know, making the world safer and freer–then maybe we could do so again.

Or maybe not.

I’m getting to the point, though, where I don’t know if I can keep blaming all those politicians who never, ever want to find out.

Better to just send in the Seals.

[NOTE: Just anecdotally and strictly for what it’s worth: The only real life Navy Seal I ever observed in action was a fifty-something retired-from-service gentleman who looked to be about five foot ten and weighed maybe a buck seventy. He was umpiring a semi-pro national tournament-level softball game (translation: presiding over a testosterone-laden arena of very large men with very thin skins and very short tempers under considerable pressure). The “action” I observed was his handling of a potentially ugly brawl that was about to break out between half a dozen players who, on average, probably had him by six inches and fifty pounds of 400-foot-off-the-handle style muscle–the kind you get putting in prison yard hours at the local gym. He shut things down rather quickly and easily. So quickly and easily that anyone who hadn’t been paying strict attention might have been deceived into thinking it had all been no big deal. And–in a fashion that was a lot truer to a movie-land Robert Mitchum than to anyone observed in Zero Dark Thirty–he did not have to raise his voice. (Though he was smiling later by the concession stand when he repeated what he had said, out of everyone else’s hearing, to the central-casting bully of the lot who was the heart of the trouble. I don’t remember his exact words, but they were along the lines of precisely which bones he was going to break in the big man’s body if he didn’t get his fat ass back to the dugout and keep his mouth shut….I do, however, remember this part, delivered with a Tennessee drawl they never, ever get right in the movies: “The first thing I told him was that I’m a retired Navy Seal which means I’ve been trained to cut your heart out with the pocket-knife I just happen to be carrying….” Don’t know if he was embellishing. I do know that, whatever he had really been trained to do, and whatever he really said to the large fellow in question, it worked. Retired or no, he looked and sounded very much like a man you would send on dangerous missions…and nothing at all like anyone who was available to be cast in Zero Dark Thirty.)]

FOR TODAY, SOME FUN LINKS…

Noel Vera on Django Unchained (and QT generally)

 Walter Mosley on Raymond Chandler

 And, now that Kathryn Bigelow has published what is likely to be her defintiive response to the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty‘s presentation of the torture state (and now that I’ve finally seen the movie), my quick two cents:

Much ado about nothing on either side. The movie isn’t clearly pro- or anti-torture. It is, I thinkpretty clearly pro-security state–as in, it accepts more or less unconditionally (as does the director’s editorial) that we need one. Given that acceptance, no moral stance is possible, here or elsewhere. Once we’ve accepted the permanent need for a security state, then we’ve accepted the “need” for torture, assassination and all the other dubious “strategies” which are the life-blood of security states in all times and places (including arresting you tomorrow, in order to find out what you know). Whether any particular itch is being scratched at this or any other moment is immaterial. The salient matter is that the barriers are down.

This isn’t a political site so I’m not here to convince anyone that they should or should not agree with my particular position on any of this, just to argue that the fierce debate surrounding this movie has been conducted on mostly spurious grounds–should or should we not torture–as opposed to serious ones–should or should we not have secret police forces in “free” societies. A movie about that subject, by a film maker as skilled as Bigelow, would be worth the heat this one has generated.

As it is, from my perspective, by far the most disorienting aspect of this very well made movie is that the Navy Seals look, act, move and speak like my nephew’s old weekend softball team.

 There might be another post in that…I’ll have to stew on it for a day or two!