Friday, June 24, 2016

Free State of Jones

Free State of Jones (2016) is everything you'd expect from a Civil War film by the director of The Hunger Games. Gary Ross's epic is well-made but underwhelming, trading depth and insight for obvious dramatic beats.

Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) deserts from the Confederate Army after the Battle of Second Corinth. Knight joins a band of runaway slaves and deserters for protection against Confederate Home Guard units. Eventually their resistance builds into all-out rebellion; Knight's men wage guerrilla warfare against the Confederacy and overrun Jones County, Mississippi. Once the war ends, Knight and his followers find their gains washed away by Jim Crow.

Free State of Jones draws on a true story, which Ross milks for crowd-pleasing elements. The film opens with an epic battle relishing gory details: graphic amputations, hogs devouring entrails. One set piece involves a funeral ambush, with black-clothed widows blasting Confederate heads and Knight strangling a villain with his belt. Benoit Delhomme complements with dynamic camerawork, probing spooky mangrove swamps, burning plantation homes and nocturnal Klan raids.

Despite the premise, Jones often feels stilted. Ross keeps characterization rote: Knight is tough and charismatic but lacks depth. His "leave me be" motive seems more selfish than righteous. His romance with a runaway slave (Gubu Mbatha-Raw) provides human interest, but a subplot involving his returned wife (Keri Russell) amounts to nothing. Eventually, the mix of guerrilla raids and Confederate atrocities grows repetitive.

Ross dwells on Knight's fate during Reconstruction. His colleague Moses (Mahershala Ali) registers blacks to vote; Knight endures indignity from Mississippi officials who replace slavery with segregation. What might be a bittersweet coda drags on interminably, like the first act of another movie; Knight goes from hero to cranky bystander. Even worse is a flash-forward subplot showing Newton's son on trial for miscegenation, sloppily woven into the narrative.

Matthew McConaughey commits to a demanding role, playing with fiery conviction. He dominates the film to the detriment of his costars. Gubu Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali, at least, are strong enough to transcend their thin characters. Others play stock types, like Bill Tangradi's craven Confederate and Joe Chrest's lecherous slave owner. Jill Jane Clements has a fun bit as an amoral tavern owner.

Free State of Jones is a good idea indifferently executed. I'm all for Civil War movies, especially those exploding the Lost Cause myth, but Newton Knight deserves a better try than this messy, disappointing muddle.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Figures in a Landscape

"I'd like to kick my bloody head right up into his Perspex!”
Joseph Losey never shied from experimentation, however alienating or misguided. Figures in a Landscape (1970) is an intellectual action film, lacking signposts for easy absorption. Whether it's absorbing or tedious depends on the viewer.

Two men flee a helicopter across a desolate landscape. MacConnachie (Robert Shaw) is a seasoned adventurer; Ansell (Malcolm McDowell), an educated neophyte. Both appear to be escaped prisoners. They kill and steal from bystanders while evading their pursuers. Their confrontations lead to a full-scale manhunt and endless argument.

Think North by Northwest's crop duster scene, expanded to feature length. Figures in a Landscape plunges directly into its narrative, sans context or even identifying its setting. Shaw's script (based on Brian England's novel) occasionally probes motivations, but provides only the barest plot. Are our heroes soldiers, mercenaries, criminals? We're left pondering details as Losey plows ahead.

Losey relishes long takes and wide shots of MacConnachie and Ansell clambering ant-like through the Spanish countryside, arid canyons pockmarked with scrubby trees or snowy mountain tops. Near-silent scenes (a nocturnal village raid, a chase through burning fields) alternate with swooping helicopter attacks, underlined by Richard Rodney Bennett's eerie, disorienting score. Action scenes swirl with dust, smoke and insistent, ambient sound.

Wisely, Figures avoids philosophizing: MacConnachie and Ansell argue over murdering a farmer, but it's more character clash than moral parable. MacConnachie grouses about his wife while Ansell merely hints at his background. But Losey's clinical approach isn't wholly satisfying, amounting to set pieces punctuated by argument. It feels like it should build into something more substantial.

Robert Shaw tackles his role with aplomb, relishing MacConnachie's bravado, violent pragmatism and terse self-justification. Shaw's outsized performance fits like a glove. Malcolm McDowell has a harder job, with a character defined mainly as Shaw's moral foil. Neither is especially likeable, yet we find ourselves cheering their adventures.

Anything as deliberately opaque as Figures in a Landscape isn't for all tastes. At least Losey's oddball artistry fits the story, which isn't always the case.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Town Called Hell

A Town Called Hell (1971) is a dismal Euro Western. An Anglo-Spanish coproduction, it mixes the silliness of the worst Spaghettis with monumentally miscast stars.

In 1895, two Mexican bandits (Robert Shaw and Martin Landau) massacre a church congregation. Years later, Shaw becomes The Priest, a pacifist holy man in the town of Bastard, while Landau becomes an Army Colonel. Vengeful widow Alvira (Stella Stevens) helps Bastard's citizens oust warlord Don Carlos (Telly Savalas), before The Colonel arrives in town tracking a revolutionary. He tries tempting The Priest into joining him, leading to violence.

A Town Called Hell offers a predictable parade of murder and backstabbing, punctuated with inscrutable flashbacks. What's lacking is the operatic direction informing the best Spaghetti Westerns. Director Robert Parrish's picaresque touches (Alvira traveling in a coffin, Don Carlos's crucifixion) sit there amidst artless shootouts. A nocturnal gunfight is especially confused, while the story completely shifts gears twice throughout the film. Add childish moral debates and you have an indigestible casserole of awfulness.

Robert Shaw vacillates between brooding and spittle-flecked ham. Telly Savalas spends his screen time bare-chested and cackling. Stella Stevens' somnambulistic turn overcompensates in the other direction. Al Lettieri and Fernando Rey fester in supporting roles. Only Martin Landau tries an earnest performance, floundering amidst this garbage.

British Westerns are generally the pits, so A Town Called Hell's quality shouldn't surprise anyone. That it features Johnny Horton's "The Battle of New Orleans" playing at an 1880s square dance says it all.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Custer of the West

Hollywood's made many films about George Armstrong Custer and the Little Big Horn, some good, most forgettable. Custer of the West (1967) is a cheapjack epic, sabotaged by a bad script, chintzy production and a misguided turn by Robert Shaw.

George Custer (Robert Shaw) distinguishes himself as a Civil War cavalryman. Eager for action, he accepts assignment to the 7th Cavalry in the Dakotas. He finds tensions between settlers and Sioux and Cheyenne Indians at knife's edge, as white miners probe the Black Hills for gold. Custer tries negotiating with Cheyenne chief Dull Knife (Kieron Moore) while whipping his regiment into shape. Eventually conflict becomes inevitable, leading to Custer's Last Stand.

Produced by Phillip Yordan, Custer of the West outdoes even They Died With Their Boots On in its sloppiness. Besides errors like calling Philip Sheridan (Lawrence Tierney) commander of the Army of the Potomac, it invents a Fourth of July massacre and makes Captain Benteen (Jeffrey Hunter) a peacenik. It conflates Custer's 1868 Washita campaign with his Dakota exploits. There's no pretense of accuracy, making us wonder why the filmmakers didn't choose a fictional story.

Worse, writers Bernard Gordon and Julian Zimet make their protagonist a bore, sternly following orders while grousing about corruption, fairness and mechanized warfare. This doesn't tally with the flamboyant, insubordinate historical Custer and doesn't make a gripping hero. He's victimized by scheming politicians, cowardly officers and faithless Indians before dying gallantly. Poor Custer, butt monkey of the Old West.

To pad its runtime and justify its Cinemascope presentation, Custer of the West indulges in dumb digressions. Useless action scenes involving runaway coaches, log fumes and imperiled trains. A short subplot involves a deserter (Robert Ryan) joining the miners. Custer and Sheridan feud like an old married couple while wife Libby (Mary Ure) anguishes over his safety. It's all just marking time between the Indian battles viewers crave.
Director Robert Siodmak's workmanlike direction does no favors. He stages action scenes competently, though we're amused to see Spanish deserts doubling for Gettysburg and Little Bighorn. Budget undercuts him: outside the 70mm battles, Custer is an overblown B Movie. Phony sets, crummy costumes and weak dialogue undermine verisimilitude. Patient viewers are rewarded with a large-scale recreation of Custer's Last Stand, but it's a long slog for a decent finale.

Robert Shaw is a holdover from Yordan's Battle of the Bulge, a flaccid epic partly redeemed by Shaw's electrifying acting. No such luck here. Shaw struggles to muffle his English accent while playing Custer as a stiff martinet, bereft of emotion beyond frustrated resolve. Neither a physical match for Custer nor a compelling protagonist, Shaw flounders.

The supporting cast is wasted. Mary Ure merely frets over her husband, while Ty Hardin and Jeffrey Hunter languish in one-note characterizations. Lawrence Tierney's General Sheridan is a one-note grouch. Robert Ryan rambles about gold and strawberries in a pointless cameo. Kieron Moore is oddly cast as an Indian chief.

Custer of the West fails on every level. Even viewers ignorant of the Little Bighorn can spot a bomb this bad from a mile away.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Luck of Ginger Coffey

Long before The Empire Strikes Back, Irvin Kershner cut his teeth directing The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964). This downbeat Canadian drama covers familiar territory, depicting a naïve immigrant out of his depth.

Irishman Ginger Coffey (Robert Shaw) struggles to adapt to life in Montreal. He works a menial proofreader's job while squandering money on beer, alienating his wife Vera (Mary Ure) and daughter Paulie (Libbie McClintock). When Vera leaves him for coworker Joe McGlade (Tom Harvey), Ginger tries to reform himself, asking his boss (Liam Redmond) for promotion and taking on a second job. Eventually though, Ginger's excesses take their toll.

Based on Brian Moore's novel, The Luck of Ginger Coffey plays like a British kitchen sink drama transplanted to Montreal. Ginger is both working class and an immigrant, finding Canadian society a rough fit. Kershner and Moore capture interesting social nuances, from economic recession to prejudice towards French-Canadians. MacGregor hires Ginger on a non-union contract and he's resented as a foreigner taking native jobs. This gives Coffey's despair a sharp edge.

And Ginger does little to alleviate it. He lies to Vera about his prospects, finding employers don't care about his Irish credentials. Here he resembles Willy Loman more than Jimmy Porter, sustaining himself through empty optimism and false promises. Ultimately he plays his hand too forcefully against MacGregor, leading to a drunken episode that shatters his opportunities.

Robert Shaw brilliantly captures Ginger's boisterous despair. Shaw's salty, swaggering charm alternates with pathetic pleading, a well-rounded character. Mary Ure's (then Mrs. Shaw) resentful rage provides counterpoint. The Canadian cast provide workmanlike turns, with Tom Harey's traitorous friend and Tom Kneebone's chatty drunk faring best.

The Luck of Ginger Coffey avoids outright tragedy with an ambiguously hopeful ending. Nonetheless, its low-key despair is palpable, making for an engaging drama.