Saturday, January 31, 2009
I had a rough week, psychologically speaking, and didn't watch any films of particular note. Here then is my IMDB review of Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday, already discussed in my list of favorite comedies.
Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is a smooth (and fast)-talking, amoral newspaper reporter who will do literally anything for a story. Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) is Walter's snappy ex-wife, who is threatening to retire from the newspaper business and settle down with Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), a well-meaning, mild-mannered sap. Walter's quest to prevent Hildy from leaving the paper reaches ridiculous extremes, as death row inmate Earl Williams (John Qualen) breaks out of prison. As the police hunt Williams, Walter draws Hildy back into the business - leaving poor Bruce taking the fall for everything. It all builds, of course, to a ridiculous, over-the-top, feverish climax, as Walter and Hildy are hiding Williams from the police, the Mayor (Clarence Kolb), and, perhaps more importantly, from their fellow journalists.
His Girl Friday is the epitome of the screwball comedy - the genre of rapid-fire dialog and misunderstandings which snowball to gigantic proportions. And what a film it is. A fabulous cast and amazing script propel this flick to stratospheric heights. Its amazingly fast-paced jokes, lovable cynicism, fabulous cast, and overall outrageousness make for a hilarious combination. I can't think of a single comedy I've enjoyed more than this film.
The film contains an extremely cynical outlook on the world. The depiction of journalism is either flattering or damning, depending on your point of view. On the one hand, we see journalists depicted as scheming, conniving, amoral jerks, who will literally do anything to get a story - including manipulating and trampling everyone else. Walter of course devotes everything he has to winning Hildy back - including legally dubious methods - and get the big scoop, which for once may be complimentary motives. The murderer, Earl Williams, and his alleged "sweetheart" Molly are used as pawns by everyone - the journalists eager for a story, and the politicians hoping to get re-election. This isn't even to mention poor hopeless Bruce, who finds himself the butt of everything that's going on. On the other hand... can we really fault them? After all, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russel are so witty, snappy, and sexy that it's impossible to side against them. And hey, the politicians are doing it too - and who can side with the ineffectual Sheriff or the scheming Mayor, with an even more callous disregard for human life? It's a dog-eat-dog world, and when everybody is a jack-off (or a helpless loser), side with the cool guys.
Hawks' direction is marvelous; the film isn't visually astounding, although the use of shadows in the jail and courtyard scenes are effective, but his handling of the actors and story are extraordinary. Hawks and writer Charles Lederer also make a great improvement over the source material (the play "The Front Page" by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht) by making Hildy a woman. This seems like a minor difference at first, but it unquestionably enhances the chemistry and relationship between the two actors, making Walter's manipulation of Hildy more urgent and endearing.
All other considerations aside, you have to give His Girl Friday at least one point: This is undoubtedly THE fastest-talking movie of all time. Charles Lederer's script is filled with endless zingers, comebacks, and wit - along with amusing ad-libs (mostly by Cary Grant - you know the ones). And the actors are absolute naturals at it. This kind of humor makes modern comedies like The 40 Year Old Virgin, Meet the Parents, and even The West Wing (its closest modern counter-part) look lame in comparison.
Cary Grant is an old hand at this genre (Arsenic and Old Lace, Bringing Up Baby) and his Walter Burns is a wonderful character, obnoxious yet charming throughout. His motives would be sweet if it weren't for the situation - and the methods. Rosalind Russel matches him quip for quip as the extremely sexy "modern woman" Hildy. The whole supporting cast is fabulous. Ralph Bellamy makes the sad-sack Bruce an endearingly honest fall guy. John Qualen as the criminal and Helen Mack as his "girlfriend" contribute amusing characters, who find themselves trapped in the ridiculous webs of journalism and politics. The whole supporting cast - Gene Lockhart as the inept Sheriff, Abner Biberman as Walter's pickpocket buddy, Martha Kern as Bruce's beleaguered mother, and Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, and Cliff Edwards (among others) as journalists - are fabulous. If even one actor were off their game, this film wouldn't work - but everyone down to the extras is fabulous.
In conclusion... what more can there be to say? His Girl Friday is perhaps THE greatest comedy of all time. See it, laugh your ass off, lather, rinse, repeat. You won't regret it.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Oscar Quest concludes (well, the Best Picture round anyway) with a much-belated look at David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie which, to say the least, pleasantly surprised me. Granted, the night after watching The Reader I could have watched Silent Night Deadly Night 2 or (God help us) The Trial of Billy Jack and probably found it more enjoyable, but Benjamin Button greatly exceeded my expectations in delivering a thoughtful, touching, and most of all entertaining film.
Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born in 1918 New Orleans, afflicted with a strange, unaccountable condition: he is born with the attributes of an old man. Abandoned by his father (Jason Flemyng), he is adopted by Tizzy (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) and Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a black couple who help run a nursing home. As time goes on, Benjamin not only survives infancy, but grows up, regressing in age as time goes by. He lives a long and full life, serving on the crew of a tugboat, and cultivating a lifelong romance with dancer Daisy (Cate Blanchett), but is cursed by his affliction - which those around him wither and die while he grows ever more young and handsome.
I would be lying if I didn't tell you I went into the movie with pretty low expectations; the plot idea seemed tacky and ridiculous, and I'd heard many people whose opinions I respect (not least of all Roger Ebert) badmouth the film or at least express disappointment. Certainly the film has an odd premise and its share of false notes. But overall it surprised me, making at least three Best Picture nominees that I wouldn't mind winning, unlike last year's zero.
The movie is extremely effective at what it sets out to do. It uses its admittedly odd and somewhat gimmicky idea the best possible way; by framing its story around and emphasizing a message of love, loss and the inexorable march of time. One might argue that Benjamin is no more cursed than anyone else who lives to an old age and has to watch their relatives die. Fair enough, but what does Benjamin have to look forward to? Moving backwards as he is, he is unable to live of a life with any degree of satisfaction or real enjoyment out of his life. Too old to form a proper relationship with Daisy as a child, too young to maintain it as she she ages, he can only maintain his relationships when on just the right wavelength of the others, and then watch them wither and die while he turns into Brad Pitt. It's to the credit of Fincher and his writers (and certainly the cast) that they're able to turn this silly concept into something touching and almost profound; it pulls all of the right emotional strings without being cloying or obnoxious. If it's manipulative, it's the good kind.
Many people have compared the film to Forrest Gump, not the least because it shares screenwriter Eric Roth. This is only valid in an oblique sense, of a man living through a long swath of history and its important events. If anything, however, the movie is the anti-Gump; whereas Forrest was a nitwit who had a major impact on history without realizing it, Benjamin is a man all too painfully aware of himself, and yet he actually achieves very little, professionally or personally; even his war service is marked by chance survival rather than any heroics, and that's probably the biggest achievement of his entire life. Even then, the film doesn't dwell on its historical events, and at best skims over its context. I dare posit that any film about the life of a person would have to deal with the events they lived through, yes?
The movie's message is not entirely original, but it's well-done anyway. The plot device is a bit odd but avoids being tacky; it's used well to push the story's message forward. The movie's only major flaws are the lame framing device involving a dying Daisy and her daughter (Julia Ormond) in hospital, during Hurricane Katrina of all things, and the illogical progression of Benjamin's growth; if he started out as an infirm baby, shouldn't he grow into a young-looking old man rather than regressing back to infancy? (This is the exact opposite of the original F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, but I digress.) Considering the whole, though, those are relatively minor complaints.
David Fincher's direction is wonderful. His films (Se7en, Fight Club) usually have a forced, false atmosphere of doom, gloom and despair that is turned into wistful nostalgia here. The film maintains a fantastic, nostalgic, almost dream-like atmosphere throughout, never seeming completely real. His sense of shadow and color, the strong point of his other films, survives here and thrives as well in an atypical context. The make-up is astonishing, as is to be expected. Alexandre Desplat's contributes a moody, emotional musical score that enhances the proceedings considerably.
The film's acting is very good. Brad Pitt does a nice job depicted Benjamin's improbable evolution, managing to make him believable in spite of the copious make-up job. It's not the greatest performance of Pitt's career but it's a nice turn anyway. Cate Blanchett, however, is most wonderful; she pulls off a difficult character extremely well; I don't know how she missed out on an Oscar nod. (As an aside, I've always loved her as an actress but I've never found her more luminously beautiful and attractive than here.) The supporting cast contains its share of gems, including Taraji P. Henson as Queenie, Tilda Swinton as Benjamin's short-lived English lover, and Ted Manson as the poor fellow who always gets hit by lightning.
Flaws aside, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a really fine film. Its insights are timeless if not particularly original, and except for a few kinks in plot and story dynamics it's a near-flawless piece of entertainment. 8/10 and #5/22 for 2008
Rating: 8/10 - Highly Recommended
So, what's next?
Saturday, January 24, 2009
I went to see The Reader tonight in furtherance of my Oscar-quest. Ordinarily when I hate a movie I'll enjoy writing a long, vituperative review of its suckiness. But I'm just so tired and angry about this piece of shit that this angry rant, posted initially on the Sergio Leone Web Board, will suffice for a full-length review.
This movie was utter shit. A complete waste of $8.50 and two hours.
I'll get the Jerry Falwell complaint out of the way first. Half of the movie's first hour is literally nothing but sex scenes, again and again. I'm not a prude by any means, but the fact that 90% of this section of the film involves sex scenes, or penis/muff shots, or Kate Winslet's wet nipples through a bra, or shirtless dudes and girls in bikinis, one goes from titilated to nonplussed to awkward and uncomfortable. I wouldn't even mind it that much, IF IT SERVED A PURPOSE!!! As it is, it serves no purpose but existence for its own sake; it doesn't aid in plot or character development in any way, and after awhile it's not even sexy.
Now I wouldn't complain about something as trivial as that if the movie had something else to offer. But it doesn't (and it actually isn't that trivial all things considered). Once the story actually gets (belatedly) underway, the movie revolves around the most stupid plot imaginable: (spoilers, but who cares?) Kate Winslet can't read. This serves virtually no purpose except at all, except to have her shut away in prison for a crime she committed during WWII (in one of the most ridiculous courtroom scenes I've seen in a long time) because she won't admit to her illiteracy. This might be an interesting idea, but the movie drops it immediately for Kate Winslet's reading and writing lessons (the funniest scene of which is where she learns how to read by hearing "The" and circling the word every time it occurs on a page. Good thing the film was in English, given that most Germans have six words for "the".). The inclusion of Holocaust-based material provides no interest other than a veneer of historical "respectibility" and really has little to do with anything; the film provides some brief debates of morality vs. law which MIGHT be interesting in a different context but just thud here amidst the general shittiness. The plot doesn't even get started until about an hour in, and even then it never develops into any thing interesting, except Winslet's struggles with literacy. Winslet and the teen douche don't have the slightest chemistry and Ralph Fiennes doesn't even show up until the last half hour (okay, there's a framing story that's established and then almost immediately dropped). The coda is absolute bullshit: it's not even sentimental, it's just stupid.
The acting is pretty good (although the material they have to work with is awful) and the technical aspects are well-done, but given how shitty everything else is these are extremely back-handed complements. This movie just fucking sucks; it's so bad I can't even be bothered to write an in-depth review detailing it's badness. That's really bad. Don't waste your time or money. 3/10 and that's being generous.
That leaves only Benjamin Button of the Best Picture nominees, to which I say: Thank God!
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Well, the Academy of Twats and Tools has spoken! Here are your 2009 Academy Award nominees.
Best Motion Picture of the Year
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Ceán Chaffin, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall
Frost/Nixon (2008): Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Eric Fellner
Milk (2008): Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks
The Reader (2008): Nominees to be determined
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Christian Colson
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Richard Jenkins for The Visitor (2007/I)
Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon (2008)
Sean Penn for Milk (2008)
Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler (2008)
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Angelina Jolie for Changeling (2008)
Melissa Leo for Frozen River (2008)
Meryl Streep for Doubt (2008/I)
Kate Winslet for The Reader (2008)
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Josh Brolin for Milk (2008)
Robert Downey Jr. for Tropic Thunder (2008)
Philip Seymour Hoffman for Doubt (2008/I)
Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight (2008)
Michael Shannon for Revolutionary Road (2008)
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams for Doubt (2008/I)
Penélope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Viola Davis for Doubt (2008/I)
Taraji P. Henson for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Marisa Tomei for The Wrestler (2008)
Best Achievement in Directing
Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Stephen Daldry for The Reader (2008)
David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Ron Howard for Frost/Nixon (2008)
Gus Van Sant for Milk (2008)
Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
Frozen River (2008): Courtney Hunt
Happy-Go-Lucky (2008): Mike Leigh
In Bruges (2008): Martin McDonagh
Milk (2008): Dustin Lance Black
WALL·E (2008): Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Jim Reardon
Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Eric Roth, Robin Swicord
Doubt (2008/I): John Patrick Shanley
Frost/Nixon (2008): Peter Morgan
The Reader (2008): David Hare
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Simon Beaufoy
Best Achievement in Cinematography
Changeling (2008): Tom Stern
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Claudio Miranda
The Dark Knight (2008): Wally Pfister
The Reader (2008): Roger Deakins, Chris Menges
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Anthony Dod Mantle
Best Achievement in Editing
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter
The Dark Knight (2008): Lee Smith
Frost/Nixon (2008): Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill
Milk (2008): Elliot Graham
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Chris Dickens
Best Achievement in Art Direction
Changeling (2008): James J. Murakami, Gary Fettis
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Donald Graham Burt, Victor J. Zolfo
The Dark Knight (2008): Nathan Crowley, Peter Lando
The Duchess (2008): Michael Carlin, Rebecca Alleway
Revolutionary Road (2008): Kristi Zea, Debra Schutt
Best Achievement in Costume Design
Australia (2008): Catherine Martin
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Jacqueline West
The Duchess (2008): Michael O'Connor
Milk (2008): Danny Glicker
Revolutionary Road (2008): Albert Wolsky
Best Achievement in Makeup
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Greg Cannom
The Dark Knight (2008): John Caglione Jr., Conor O'Sullivan
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008): Mike Elizalde, Thomas Floutz
Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Alexandre Desplat
Defiance (2008): James Newton Howard
Milk (2008): Danny Elfman
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): A.R. Rahman
WALL·E (2008): Thomas Newman
Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): A.R. Rahman, Gulzar("Jai Ho")
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): A.R. Rahman, Maya Arulpragasam("O Saya")
WALL·E (2008): Peter Gabriel, Thomas Newman("Down to Earth")
Best Achievement in Sound
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce, Mark Weingarten
The Dark Knight (2008): Ed Novick, Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke, Resul Pookutty
WALL·E (2008): Tom Myers, Michael Semanick, Ben Burtt
Wanted (2008): Chris Jenkins, Frank A. Montaño, Petr Forejt
Best Achievement in Sound Editing
The Dark Knight (2008): Richard King
Iron Man (2008): Frank E. Eulner, Christopher Boyes
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Tom Sayers
WALL·E (2008): Ben Burtt, Matthew Wood
Wanted (2008): Wylie Stateman
Best Achievement in Visual Effects
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton, Craig Barron
The Dark Knight (2008): Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Timothy Webber, Paul J. Franklin
Iron Man (2008): John Nelson, Ben Snow, Daniel Sudick, Shane Mahan
Best Animated Feature Film of the Year
Bolt (2008): Chris Williams, Byron Howard
Kung Fu Panda (2008): John Stevenson, Mark Osborne
WALL·E (2008): Andrew Stanton
Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008)(Germany)
Entre les murs (2008)(France)
Vals Im Bashir (2008)(Israel)
Best Documentary, Features
The Betrayal - Nerakhoon (2008): Ellen Kuras, Thavisouk Phrasavath
Encounters at the End of the World (2007): Werner Herzog, Henry Kaiser
The Garden (2008/I): Scott Hamilton Kennedy
Man on Wire (2008): James Marsh, Simon Chinn
Trouble the Water (2008): Tia Lessin, Carl Deal
Best Documentary, Short Subjects
The Conscience of Nhem En: Steven Okazaki
The Final Inch: Irene Taylor Brodsky, Tom Grant
Smile Pinki: Megan Mylan
The Witness from the Balcony of Room 306: Adam Pertofsky, Margaret Hyde
Best Short Film, Animated
Nominees:La Maison en Petits Cubes: Kunio Kato
Ubornaya istoriya - lyubovnaya istoriya (2007): Konstantin Bronzit
Oktapodi (2007): Emud Mokhberi, Thierry Marchand
Presto (2008): Doug Sweetland
This Way Up (2008): Alan Smith, Adam Foulkes
Best Short Film, Live Action
Nominees:Auf der Strecke (2007): Reto Caffi
Manon sur le bitume (2007): Elizabeth Marre, Olivier Pont
New Boy (2007): Steph Green, Tamara Anghie
Grisen (2008): Tivi Magnusson, Dorthe Warnø Høgh
Spielzeugland (2007): Jochen Alexander Freydank
I got four of my five Best Picture nods correct. I should have known Benjamin Button was going to get it, but otherwise nice work Grogs.
Now... to the the-ater! WE'VE GOT MOVIE SIGN!!!
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Yes, Oscar nominations are less than twelve hours away! It's time to preserve my idiocy and ignorant for all time by making some predictions using my amazing prognosticative (sic) powers.
I'm only going to do Best Pictures - the five I think are most likely to get noms and five that have a good shot. I know a lot of you care about Best Sound Editing or Best Gaffer, but I don't.
The Nominees Are...
Slumdog Millionaire - The almost universal critical praise, its slowly-gathering box office success and great word of mouth, and its Golden Globe success make this pretty much a lock. Let's hope it's a win too.
Frost/Nixon - The acclaim the movie's getting, particularly for its lead performances, makes it all but a lock. I would be extremely surprised if this didn't get a nod.
Milk - Hollywood loves a well-made cookie-cutter biopic, and its progressive subject matter will make the Academy (and Sean Penn) feel warm and tingly inside by voting for it. Am I cynical? You betcha.
The Wrestler - Will Mickey Rourke's performance alone be enough to jettison it to contenton? We'll see, but I'm willing to give it that chance.
The Reader - The year's Dark Horse, not much chance but you can never be sure. Everyone loves a Holocaust film, right? (Wait, then where's Boy in the Striped Pajamas? Nevermind.)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - A few months ago this would have been an unquestioned lock, but mixed critical reviews and largely negative buzz from the people whose opinions matter in these things. Still, it's been a big hit and it has elements of the movie that the Academy likes to suck up whenever possible, so we'll see. Speaking of which, I need to see this film ASAP.
Revolutionary Road - DiCaprio and Winslett together isn't going to result in anything besides a Kate Winslett nomination.
Doubt - As much as I love this movie, I don't see anything beyond the three acting nods for Streep, Hoffman and Adams (and maybe Davis). I would love to be surprised though.
Gran Torino - Poor Clint. First the Changeling buzz fizzled out, now this movie's going to miss out except maybe a Best Actor nod. Wait a minute - Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby? No "poor Clint", try "Move over Clint - give someone else a turn!"
The Dark Knight - Popularity and critical acclaim count for something, but I don't see this getting any nods beyond Best Supporting Actor for Ledger and a few technical awards.
Thanks for your time. Let's keep our fingers crossed that I get one of these selections right...
Monday, January 19, 2009
Tonight's entry in Groggy's Oscar-thon is Gus Van Sant's Milk. In spite of the considerable awards hype it has received, it's a fairly typical entry in the sanitized Hollywood biopic genre. That it's getting Best Picture and Best Actor buzz isn't overly surprising - the subject matter and the film's format as a standard glossy Hollywood biopic are the stuff Oscar gold is made of - but anyone who thinks that's indicative of its quality, or that there's anything original about it, should be wary.
The film tells the life story - well, the important parts - of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the gay rights activist who rose to position of San Francisco City Supervisor in the late '70s, leading in no small way to the legitimization of the gay rights movement - and his assassination at the hands of disgruntled fellow Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin). We see key points in Harvey's life - as a closeted New York insurance salesman who falls in love with Scott Smith (James Franco), comes out of the closet and lives as a camera salesman in San Francisco, his disgust at anti-gay discrimination and rallying the gay community, his early campaigns for city council, his breakup with Scott and messy relationship with Jack Lira (Diego Luna), his victory and successful lobbying for gay rights, and of course his fatal encounter with Dan White.
Milk touches all the bases of the slick by-the-numbers Hollywood biopic that we're all so familiar with. Start out with a post-mortem framing device (in this case a narrated tape recording). Give us a quirky outsider hero. Give him a task to complete for selfish gain. Let that task blossom into a greater cause, and have protagonist achieve success against seemingly all odds. Throw in personal turmoil. Build to tragic finale. Insert archival news footage and narration to plug up narrative gaps and keep the story moving. It's all adequately done, but it's been done so many times before it's hard to be impressed by it.
The movie's biggest failure is in its character development. Like many if not most biopics, its characterization is largely tertiary; it projects the image of Harvey Milk, but doesn't really explore who he was as a person, beyond the cause he stood for. His relationship and personal life is dealt with rather perfunctory manner, and even those who know nothing about Harvey can guess the trajectory of his relationships with the loyal Scott and testy Jack. Dan White is a more interesting character, but remains similarly underdeveloped; we learn nothing about what's driving him, aside from some allusions to his standing as outsider (why? We don't really know) and a crass insinuation that he may himself be a closeted gay. Supporting characters don't even rise to that level; they're just background noise, in large part. Only Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), the loud-mouthed streetwalker-turned-activist, stands out in any real way, and its his absurd, obnoxious geekiness rather than depth as a character that sets him apart.
Arthouse director Gus Van Sant (Elephant, Gerry) is at the helm, giving a directoral performance little better than a high-paid Hollywood hack. Everything is technically proficient but barely more than adequate. The movie has a cold, produced feel; even the film's emotional high points - the near-riot, Jack's suicide, and the final assassination - have a curiously muted and distant feel Perhaps it's because we know what's coming, but one would expect such a talented director as Van Sant to make it more interesting than he ultimately does.
The acting is only as good as the script allows. Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk as a nice guy with a cause, but not much beyond that. Penn isn't bad, but he's given far better performances and it certainly isn't worthy of particular distinction. Josh Brolin does an admirable job with an underwritten and underdeveloped part; I'm reminded of his turn as President Bush in W last fall, where he gave a similarly heroic but fruitless effort. Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Victor Garber, Diego Luna and Alison Pill all do yeoman's work, but their characters are little more than thumbnail sketches.
I won't say Milk is a huge disappointment; it does what it wants to do adequately, but little more. It's a standard Hollywood "life story", with all the inherent flaws and limitations. If it turns some people onto gay rights and renews recognition, then all the power to it, but as a work of cinema it's nothing special.
Rating: 6/10 - Use Your Own Discretion
"You are like the Wind and I like the Lion. You form the Tempest. The sand stings my eyes and the Ground is parched. I roar in defiance but you do not hear. But between us there is a difference. I, like the lion, must remain in my place. While you like the wind will never know yours." - The Raisuli (Sean Connery)
John Milius's The Wind and the Lion is a truly wonderful film, and one I have a great deal of affection for. This film embodies everything I love about movies: great action scenes, an intriguing story (based VERY loosely on historical fact) and setting, well-drawn characters, and a wonderful sense of intelligence both cynical and insightful. When one is in the right mood, a movie like this just hits the spot.
In 1904, Morocco is holding a tenuous grip on its sovereignty as the European powers of Britain, France, Germany and Spain are seeking to exert influence and muscle on one of Africa's last uncolonized regions. While the country's inept Sultan (Marc Zuber) and crooked Bashaw (Vladek Sheybal) are more than happy to do business with the Europeans, the Raisuli (Sean Connery), a Berber chieftain and outlaw, has other plans. He kidnaps American expatriate Eden Perdicaris (Candice Bergen) and her children from Tangier in order to embarrass the Sultan and exact tribute. American President Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Keith) seizes upon the incident and uses it as fodder for his re-election bid, though he finds himself fascinated by Raisuli - as is Eden, who slowly falls in love with the dashing brigand. Meanwhile, various American, European and Moroccan diplomats negotiate and scheme over the situation, leading to the landing of US Marines in Tangier and a showdown involving the Raisuli, the Marines, the German army and the Moroccan government.
More than any other film, The Wind and the Lion allows John Milius's talents the fullest rein. While a celebrated screenwriter (Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now), his directoral efforts are widely dismissed, and in many cases rightfully so - whatever their merits, it's hard to argue Big Wednesday, Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn are masterpieces. Certainly Milius is an intriguing figure, an odd mixture of dichotomies: a right-wing gun-nut who gained reknown as a surfer, an ardent patriot fascinated with the military who is suspicious of authority and cynical of American foreign policy. Also at play in his works are a sense of childish anarchism mixed with macho posturing, with an insightful intelligence mixed in as well. Most of his directorial works struggle to balance the three, resulting in entertaining but frustratingly uneven films. The Wind and the Lion is the one movie where Milius gets just the right balance, and despite some flaws in its story construction, it fires on all cylinders as a work of entertainment, and as a thoughtful statement on imperialism, American foreign policy and masculinity.
The movie's biggest triumph is its comparison of Roosevelt and Raisuli as two sides of the same coin. Both characters embody the virile, rugged masculinity that Milius admires. Both men are honorable, chivalrous, brave, uncompromising and strong (physically and mentally) men of the old school, out of place in a world riddled by greed, corruption, avarice and self-interested pragmatism - and moreover, they know it. Both men are obsessed with weapons, extremely proud, undermined by those around them (the Raisuli is betrayed and imprisoned by his brother, the Bashaw, while Roosevelt's cabinet and staff scheme literally behind his back to secure the support of corporate special interests) - but despite their shortcomings, both men possess honor and self-awareness that their unscrupulous peers lack. The film is Hemmingway-esque in its mediation on the decline of masculinity, undermined by crooked politicians and greed, and makes its point compellingly with two beautifully drawn protagonists.
Milius also shows an intelligent view of American foreign policy and adventurism, shaped by a curious mixture of cynicism and romanticism. One of the movie's key scenes is a conference of American diplomats and military leaders debating how to rescue the Perdicarises, resulting in the gung-ho Captain Jerome (Steve Kanaly) cheerily recommending "military intervention!" as the clear-cut solution to the problem. Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz would no doubt smile approvingly as these men raise their glasses in toast to "a world at war." It's hard to watch this scene without laughing; it's deliberately comic, but strikes a chord. And yet, the actual execution of this plan - as the Marines march in orderly file through Tangier, gunning down the Bashaw's bodyguard without warning and cheerily running up the Stars and Stripes - is depicted in such a straight-forward manner that it's impossible to tell whether Milius is being serious or not. Certainly the tone is the same as before, but it's obvious Milius wants us to celebrate the Marines as heroes rather than invaders introducing their own brand of imperialism. Guessing, however, is part of the fun.
More measured, but no less pertinent, than these overtly satirical sequences is Roosevelt's wonderful monologue, where he muses over a freshly killed grizzly bear about the spirit and nature of America. His monologue about American loneliness and exceptionalism - "The world will never love us... For we have too much audacity!" - is one of the most intelligent things ever written for a film on the subject, succinctly stating the view of a young nation just emerging as a world power, completely different from the decadent, decaying empires of the Old World, replacing their power-hungry self-indulgence with hopeful idealism (even if subverted to an extent by greed and corruption). This is echoed by the beautifully conceived intro to Roosevelt, as he poses for a photograph with his hand on a globe, literally projecting America's newfound power over Morocco. This scene is considered, thoughtful, and succinct, neither jingoism nor crass mockery. Noam Chomsky might take issue with such an assessment, but its simple truth reverberates throughout the entire film.
Though the peripheral scenes involving American Ambassadors Gummere (Geoffrey Lewis) and Dreighton (Darrell Fetty) negotiating for Perdicarises' release may detract from the flow of the story, they serve an important purpose in a complex, realistic and still pertinent portrayal of the Middle East. With the imperial powers of America and Europe viewing Morocco as merely another foreign land to conquer and exploit, Moroccans are caught in the middle. While their crooked, greedy and selfish leaders are happy to cooperate with foreign benefactors, men like Raisuli will not accept this. Even in 1975, it was extremely bold for Milius to portray the Raisuli - a man unquestionably a terrorist - with legitimate grievances against his government and foreign interlopers, and a hero at that. That this fits in so well with Milius's gung-ho endorsement of military adventurism is a testament to Milius's skill as a writer; he's able to have it both ways without seeming foolish or hypocritical.
All this political content is interesting, but what of the film as entertainment? Fortunately, the movie succeeds first and foremost as a fine adventure film, wonderfully contained within its 119 minutes. The movie embraces its Boy's Own roots by having William Perdicaris (Simon Harrison), Eden's young son, as a central character; the movie is essentially seen through his eyes, which certainly helps explain the film's coloring. The relationship between Eden and Raisuli is enjoyable and well-developed, although it never quite makes the turn into outright romance; but the scenes of our two protagonists bantering like refugees from His Girl Friday provide lots of fun dialogue as they play with the Raisuli's archaic aphorisms.
The film works wonderfully for about 85 minutes of its run time; the pacing is crisp and fast, the action scenes thrilling and brilliantly shot, and even the dialogue scenes fly by (thanks in no small part to Milius's witty, sharp-tongued and endlessly quotable screenplay). However, the film struggles to the climax - we have a lot of long and draggy dialogue scenes involving the Raisuli, as the final battle is awkwardly set-up, and we're a bit disappointed as Eden and Raisuli's relationship doesn't advance the logical step to romance. More awkward still is how the battle is set into motion - Eden and her children drawing guns on Jerome's Marines and essentially forcing them to rescue the Raisuli. It's an extremely awkward and silly moment, no matter how you look at it; fortunately, though, the film redeems this misstep with its wonderful final battle and poignant finale.
On a technical level, the film is marvelous. Milius handles the big action scenes - the Raisuli's raid on the Perdicaris residence, his rescue of Eden from a band of sleazy bandits, the final battle between the German, Moroccan and American armies, and most notably, the awe-inspiring march of Jerome's Marines through the streets of Tangier - with skill and aplomb, marshalling extras with the ability of David Lean for a fraction of the cost. (More than once I've heard this film referred to as a cross between Lawrence of Arabia and The Wild Bunch; I could not think of a better analogy). Billy Williams' cinematography is gorgeous, capturing the stark beauty of the Almerian desert and giving full breadth to the film's big action scenes. And lest we forget Jerry Goldsmith's score - rousing, evocative and beautifully romantic, it adds immeasuribly to the experience.
The film's protagonists are all wonderfully portrayed. Sean Connery is at his charismatic best; if you can overlook his trademark Scottish brogue, he's perfectly cast as the Raisuli, playing it with his customary charisma, humor and virility. Brian Keith is even more impressive as Roosevelt, giving an intelligent, layered portrayal of the President as not only the ultimate tough guy, but a thoughtful man who knows his own image and nourishes it carefully. Candice Bergen is perfectly cast, her classical beauty and stiff acting style perfectly suited for the tough-as-nails, Katharine Hepburn-esque tomboy Eden. The supporting cast is more uneven - while fine character actors like John Huston, Vladek Sheybal and Roy Jenson are given little to do, there are nice turns by Geoffrey Lewis as the gruff, cynical American ambassador and a handsome pre-Dallas Steve Kanaly as the improbably gung-ho Marine Captain.
The Wind and the Lion is simply an amazing film. I hope you'll excuse the length of this post, and giving my love of this film full rein. Suffice it to say, I adore this movie, and it's one I'm happy to revisit again and again.
Rating: 9/10 - Highest Recommendation
Saturday, January 17, 2009
My Oscar quest continues tonight with Danny Boyle (and Loveleen Tandan)'s Slumdog Millionaire, the delightful little film that came seemingly out of nowhere to win Best Picture at the Golden Globes last weekend. I went in without much expectations; I only knew vaguely what the film was about, and didn't really know what to expect out of it. Much to my surprise, I got a wonderfully joyous, enjoyable and excellent piece of entertainment. To use an awfully hackneyed but most appropriate cliche, it's a magical film, a crowd-pleaser of the highest caliber.
Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is a young Indian man who finds himself one question away from a 20 million rupee prize on India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, hosted by the sleazy and selfish Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor). Arrested by police on suspicion of cheating, Jamal has to prove his innocence and account for his knowledge of the show's esoteric and eclectic questions. We see in flashback his trouble life in Bombay (Mumbai): his mother is murdered by Hindus in a race riot, and he joins his brother Selim (Madhur Mittal) and orphan girl Latika (Freida Pinto) on the run. They encounter a gang of criminals who take in children and force them to work as beggars and singers (eyeballs optional). Selim and Jamal escape, but Latika is not so lucky. As they grow older, Selim slides into a life of crime, graduating from petty crime to working as a henchman of a Mumbai crime lord (Ferroz Abbas Khan) while Jamal takes on various menial jobs to keep himself alive while trying to locate Latika - who happens to be the wife of Selim's boss. If I were tell to you that everything hinged on the game show's final question, would you be at all surprised?
The film wonderfully balances a sense of almost whimsical humor and light-hearted escapism with a dramatic storyline with dark undertones. Like Australia, it works best as a fairytale Valentine to India; a fairytale with serious undertones, but a fairytale nonetheless. It balances out a depiction of the horrible poverty in the more with the beauty of the country, and more importantly, a depiction of how humanity flourishes even in the most desperate of situation. It's a life-affirming movie, and I mean that in the best possible way; it will make you feel good about life and you'll come out of the theater with a grin on your face.
As a narrative, the film is perfectly constructed and expertly paced. The use of the gameshow as a framing device to string the narrative along is quite clever and effective; it may be a gimmick, but it works extremely well, providing the movie a sense of drive, and a share of ironic humor as well. The movie does an excellent job with its characters. Jamal is an Everyman, a good person trapped in a hideous situation, and his earnest attempts to gain Latika's affection and keep himself alive and out of trouble make him an immediately sympathetic protagonist. Selim undergoes the most impressive character arc, as he develops from a headstrong young boy into a budding criminal, and his increasingly conflicted feelings about his job and position. Latika isn't seen as much more than a prize to be won, but given the story's focus on Jamal that's an understandable fault. All of these plots and characters intersect with almost Dickensian improbability, but Boyle does it in such a way as to render any complaints moot. If the movie veers towards cliche and melodrama towards the end, well, it's largely earned it with what's come before.
In its depiction of the slums of Mumbai and the attendant squalor, Slumdog lacks the gritty realism of something like City of God, but anyone who goes into this film expecting such is wrongheaded to begin with. It bears comparison to the childhood scenes of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (Boyle even inserts a clever homage when Jamal and Selim watch Natika dancing through a peephole), a polished and romanticized but nonetheless believable depiction of life amongst the dregs of society. Of course, Jamal and Selim's adventures through Mumbai are romanticized to no small degree; their life as petty criminals is romanticized and made light of, but this is to be expected. It's hard to argue that scenes like the race riot between Hindus and Muslims, the orphanage's blinding of children (so they will make more money as beggars), or adolescent Latika's being sold into sexual slavery, are light and frivolous material. To be sure, it's not a documentary depiction of slum life, but the movie is a fantasy drama, not a social outrage film. The weaving of reality and fantasy is done expertly, and I feel only a churl would complain about this aspect of the film.
Technically, the film is quite accomplished. Other than an overreliance on slo-mo and shaky cam (and a few too many "zoom out to reveal the full extent of something" shots), Boyle and Tandan's direction is assured, capturing both the squalor and beauty of India without sentimentalizing it to an excessive degree. The editing is quite striking, particularly the creative use of dissolve wipes throughout. A.R. Rahman contributes a beautiful, evocative score, which mixes well with a selection of Indian pop songs and M.I.A. tracks (Paper Planes anyone?).
The acting is top-notch. Dev Patel gives a wonderful performance as Jamal, the lovable Indian Everyman. The gorgeous Freida Pinto makes her Latika an endearing character in spite of lack of screen time, and Madhur Mittal gives a strong performance as Selim. All of the child actors do exceptional work, managing to be funny and believable without being at all cloying. The best performance is Anil Kapoor as the slimy, duplictious game show host; he completely steals the show whenever he's on screen, and provides a wonderfully comic performance.
Slumdog Millionaire may not be the best film of all time, but best film of 2008? It's pretty close, though I might still rate Australia and Doubt ahead of it. (And until more of the GG Best Picture nominees get wide release, I think it's more than fair to crown it as such.) It's a magical film, and I think you'd have to be the ultimate cynic and grouch to dislike it. Although, God knows there are more than enough of you out there. But for me, it earns its sentimentality and the undeniably cliched conclusion. Dare I be so bold as to suggest that if a movie makes its audience feel good, then it's a good, perhaps even a great film? I think I dare.
Rating: 9/10 - Highest Recommendation
Friday, January 16, 2009
Blessed be TCM! With the temperature dipping well below zero, a movie excursion was out of the question tonight, and I was treated by the fine people of Turner to a second viewing of William Wyler's excellent drama The Children's Hour (1961). Although inevitably a bit dated in its subject matter, it still holds up as a powerful drama dealing with the affects of prejudice and gossip - and featuring perhaps the best performances of Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine's careers.
Based on the play by Lillian Hellman, The Children's Hour tells the story of Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley Maclaine), two teachers who run a private girl's school. Things seem to be going reasonably well, with the school a success and Karen convincing her long-time fiancee Joe (James Garner) to finally marry her. Naturally, things are not as rosy as they seem on the surface - Martha has a resentment towards Joe and Karen's relationship, Martha's nagging aunt and occasonal teacher Mrs. Mortar (Miriam Hopkins) is aggravating her niece, and problem child Mary (Karen Balkin) is giving her teachers endless headaches with her mischievious shenanigans. Things immediately explode, however, as Mary tells her gullible grandmother (Fay Bainter) that Karen and Martha are having a love affair - a suspicion confirmed by various bits of half-heard conversation and school-girl gossip. Karen and Martha, unable to disprove the allegations, find their lives destroyed by the accusations. Eventually, Mary is forced to reveal her perfidy - but were her charges true? And either way, is it too late to reverse their affects?
For The Children's Hour to be made in 1961 Hollywood was quite daring. Indeed, it had been previously filmed by Wyler himself as These Three (1936), which turned its plot into a conventional love triangle; he must have been chomping at the bit to re-adapt the story in a more complete and honest manner. Its depiction of homosexuality is a bit dated and out-of-step with modern sensibilities, but that's not really the main point of the story.
Homosexuality was an issue that early Hollywood skirted around; on the rare occasions it was dealt with, it was treated as a form of disgusting deviancy. Laurence Olivier's attempts to seduce Tony Curtis in Spartacus (deleted from the film's original release), the coded relationshp between Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd in Ben-Hur, Judith Anderson's psychotic Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, Anne Baxter and George Sanders' maliciously deviant characters in All About Eve represented Hollywood's way of addressing an issue whose acceptibility remains controversial. Noir films like Rope, Strangers on a Train, Psycho, Gilda, The Maltese Falcon and Laura made it even more overt; the homosexuals were variably unbalanced killers or deviants. The very idea of a film treating homosexuality in a sympathetic manner was unthinkable.
The Children's Hour was a remarkably brave film in this regard. Although the words homosexual or lesbian are not uttered once, the subject matter is dealt with in a straightforward and even sympathetic matter. It still retains the old patronizing standby that the social deviant must destroy themselves as punishment. However, it addresses the issue with a remarkable poignancy. Some have argued that Martha's self-disgusted speech where she admits to her homosexuality is simply pandering to an audience that in 1961 would not have been willing to accept the idea of lesbianism; conversely, however, I see it more as the very reaction of a person raised to think of homosexuality as a mortal sin, and finding it hiding inside her. She's supposed to be disgusted; the story wouldn't have nearly as much poignancy if it didn't.
However, the movie's main thrust is actually its critique of gossip and social prejudice, a topic it handles brilliantly. Mary is one of the most evil characters: she's perhaps a bit too evil to be believable, but her character type - the obnoxious, spoiled, manipulative bully - is real enough. A natural troublemaker, she exploits and manipulates everyone she comes across - her too-kind teachers, her sexually-repressed and excitable classmates, and especially her grandmother and the young kleptomanaic Rosalie (Veronica Cartwright) - like a grade-school Iago, destroying the lives of others simply to gain petty vengeance on her teachers. All it takes is the word of a malcontented child to turn the entire community against Karen and Martha. The message is timeless, and still remains relevant today, however hackneyed and overdone it may be. Prejudice, ignorance and distrust of anything different remain a driving force in society, and until they cease being such the film will remain pertinent. If the High Noon-esque to hell with all of you ending is a bit too self-righteous, well, I think the film largely earned it.
William Wyler's direction is exceptional. A second viewing reveals a stark sense of mis-en-scene. The black-and-white photography adds an atmosphere of dread and foreboding throughout, and Wyler makes exquisite use of space throughout, resulting in a claustrophobic atmosphere. As well as his spatial use, Wyler uses deep-focus to an extraordinary degree throughout. It's more noticeable in some scenes then others - when Mary listens to Martha and her aunt arguing - but its use throughout is quite striking, emphasizing the importance of characters hearing just the right piece of gossip. And the film's grisly denouement is handled in a wonderfully subtle yet absolutely devastating manner. Alex North provides a wonderfully quiet, melancholy score to sweeten the deal.
Audrey Hepburn is at her absolute best, just narrowly missing The Nun's Story as her greatest achievement. She subdues most of her usual persona and gives an intelligent, layered and complex performance. She is easily matched by Shirley Maclaine, giving an extraordinary performance as Martha; she gives a wonderful sense of wistful melancholy to a character troubled (and ultimately destroyed) by feelings she doesn't understand and can't control; her ultimate fate is horrendously tragic. James Garner is good although his role is of course secondary to the drama. Fay Bainter gives a remarkably sympathetic performance as the pathetic, confused Mrs. Tillford, portrayed as being as much a victim of her granddaughter's scheming as the protagonists. Mary Belkin and Veronica Cartwright are both believable as the primary children characters.
The Children's Hour is a remarkable film. That it still holds up 48 years later s a testament to its quality; even if individual elements seem out of date, it's still a poignant and powerful achievement.
Rating: 9/10 - Highest Recommendation
Kudos to TCM I was able to witness a very early Stanley Kubrick effort, the noir thriller Killer's Kiss (1955). Kubrick's second film, after Fear and Desire, it is very similar to his much more acclaimed The Killing - a straight-forward, low-budget kitchen sink crime film. It also shares with The Killing that it's rather dull and unremarkable - a film that could have been made by any cheap Hollywood hack. But since Kubrick was just starting out, I'm willing to give him some leeway - and there are certainly some worthwhile moments, that make this worth a look.
The film involves Davy Gordon (Jamie Smith), a New York City prizefighter who saves ne'er-do-well Gloria Price (Irene Kane) from small-time hood Vincent (Frank DaSilva). The two fall in love, while trying to avoid Vincent and his goons seeking retribution. That's really all that you need to know about the plot; it won't bear much more in-depth a description.
The movie was made on the most shoe-string budget imaginable - as low as $75,000 I believe - and it certainly looks it. The film has a kitchen sink cinema verite style that doesn't exactly allow for much directoral flair; most of the camera angles and direction are fairly straightforward. The film's length and plot allow for little story or character development, preventing a viewer from really becoming involved in the film. The cast is pretty wooden and the script consists of economic, generic tough guy dialogue. For most of the runtime, the film doesn't look any different from any number of B-List Hollywood films - a product of Roger Corman's schlock factory, perhaps.
Still, such a great talent as Kubrick can't keep his skills completely concealed, even in such uninspiring material. He makes some creative use of cinematography and editing, which, while obviously not as impressive as his later work, show early signs of genius - most notably the scene where Davy's manager (Jerry Jarrett) is killed by Vincent's thugs in a shadowy alley, and the imaginative negative-image dream sequence. The movie really earns its spurs in the final fifteen minutes, as Davy has to save Gloria from Vincent and his goons. The final hand-to-hand fight in the mannequin-store is a powerful, intense sequence, and the scene of Davy and Vincent grappling with tools strangely predates the Kirk Douglas-Woody Strode duel in Spartacus.
Killer's Kiss is a worthwhile watch (and at 67 minutes it isn't exactly excrutiating to sit through), and certainly the wonderful last fifteen minutes makes with worth a look if nothing else. It's better than The Killing, but there's only scant sign of the filmmaker Kubrick would become. Still, there's something to be said for the climax.
Rating: 6/10 - Use Your Own Discretion
Thursday, January 15, 2009
After his busy year in 2008, the Grim Reaper has wasted no time getting back to work: Ricardo Montalban and Patrick McGoohan just passed away yesterday.
On a somewhat lighter note, here is an interesting interview with actor/writer Darrell Fetty, who co-starred in one of my favorite movies, The Wind and the Lion. Will that be a film I'll revisit for the sake of this blog? Stay tuned...
On a somewhat lighter note, here is an interesting interview with actor/writer Darrell Fetty, who co-starred in one of my favorite movies, The Wind and the Lion. Will that be a film I'll revisit for the sake of this blog? Stay tuned...
Monday, January 12, 2009
The Golden Globeswere tonight, though I didn't watch as I was celebrating (in my own way, by printing out homework) the Steelers' epochal victory over San Diego. I'm a mite surprised by some of the results - namely Slumdog Millionaire winning Best Picture. (Dammit, there's one more I need to see!) I'm a bit disappointed that Frank Langella and Amy Adams didn't win, but at least John Adams swept all of its categories - I still uphold Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as the most wonderful couple in screen history! Hopefully I'll be able to see some more of the major nominees in the coming weeks, so I won't be completely unprepared come Oscar-time. (Hopefully I'll have seen enough 2008 films by then to make a meaningful "retrospective" post, too.)
In the meantime, I plan to pick up some of the slack in this blog by cross-posting some of my old IMDB user comments. As an appropriate follow-up to Doubt, here is my review of The Nun's Story, which I will rewatch ASAP. I hope none of you mind, and this one's one of my better ones I think. But anyway...
The Nun's Story
Gabriele Van Der Maal (Audrey Hepburn) is a head-strong Belgian girl who decides to become a Nun, despite the protests of her surgeon father (Dean Jagger). Gabriele finds her work challenging in the extreme; in order to be successful, she must suppress her individuality, all of her thoughts, memories and desires, and sublimate herself to a collective worship and service of God. As Sister Luke, she works in an insane asylum, a hospital in the Congo, and in a military hospital during World War II. Despite her best efforts, Gabriele struggles to sublimate her personality and pride, but finds herself increasingly unable to do so. Although she becomes acclaimed as a selfless, hard-working nurse, she realizes the truth of her Mother Superior (Edith Evans)' dictum: "You can cheat your sisters, but you can't cheat yourself - or God!"
The Nun's Story is a profound, deep and intelligent film. It deals thoughtfully with a difficult subject: What does it mean to become a Nun, to sacrifice your life to religion? Fred Zinneman's handsome, thoughtful film addresses this question in a forthright, honest manner, without passing any judgment on the Catholic Church or the lead character. It also contains the greatest performance of Audrey Hepburn's career, by far.
Nuns haven't had a very good track record on film. The most egregious are films like, say, Sister Act or The Sound of Music, which depict Nuns as clownish figures, repressed women who just want to have a good time, ride motorcycles, sing, dance or, God help us, fly. Even more serious explorations of the theme (Black Narcissus, The Bells of St. Mary's) are largely tainted with an outsider view of Catholicism, and tend to idealize or damn it. Even worse, a seemingly never-ending chain of Hollywood films and TV shows seems grimly determined to convince us that religion is a sham, and religious people are inherently evil - murderers, pedophiles, or hypocrites all.
The Nun's Story doesn't. Its depiction of the Catholic Church is remarkably uncritical, yet neither is it an endorsement. It is an incredibly frank exploration of Catholicism, and specifically Nunnery. The early scenes showing the Nuns' training makes it clear that being a Nun isn't something people do for fun - it's serious, hard work, a complete and utter immersion in religion and devotion to God. In order to become a Nun, one must strive for perfection, sublimate individuality, recognize and criticize even the tiniest faults - and shed all vestiges of their previous life. One can't even talk without permission, or express their private thoughts or feelings - except to condemn them as fault or sin. Only the most devoted, strong-willed women can achieve this without bowing out or losing their sanity; and it's unlikely that they'll be singing and dancing with Whoopi Goldberg any time soon.
This process proves exceedingly difficult for Gabriele, who is a headstrong, proud and intelligent girl. At first, she willingly tackles being a Nun as a challenge; we never learn why she decided to become a Nun (unhappy family life? Personal problems? A sense of religious duty or calling?), but it's not all that important. It isn't long, however, before Gabriele's faults begin to surface. In the ultra-repressive and controlled environment of the Monastery, Gabriele finds herself increasingly critical of and disgusted in herself. The movie reaches an early climax when one of Sister Luke's mothers (Ruth White) suggests that she deliberately fail a medical exam in order to assuage feelings of pride and guilt. This provides an agonizing conflict: a viewer might reasonably ask whether it's right to ask a Nun to be dishonest, which might be a bigger flaw than pride.
But even as Sister Luke becomes an exemplary nurse, she finds herself unable to sublimate herself to the Church. She is nearly killed when she gives water to an asylum patient (Colleen Dewhurst) without permission. She becomes more and more independent in the Congo, taking initiative without her Mothers' knowledge and developing an attraction towards the handsome Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch). She sees all of these as faults, even when her superiors don't. Her Mothers and Sisters are supportive and understanding, recognizing Sister Luke's virtues and skill - but she can only see the flaws. World War II provides the final straw; when her family and countrymen are being slaughtered by the Nazis, how can she possibly remain impartial? It's impossible to say Sister Luke isn't a strong woman, but her inability to see her strengths is her fatal flaw.
Fred Zinneman's direction, as usual, is handsome and at times beautiful. As in other works, his straightforward directorial style lets the actors, sets and locations do the work. Robert Anderson's script gives intelligent dialog and well-rounded, sensitive characters, avoiding the stereotypes and clichés of religious films, condemning neither the Catholic Church nor our flawed protagonist. Franz Planer provides gorgeous cinematography, particularly in the Congo scenes, and Franz Waxman gives a beautiful score.
Audrey Hepburn's performance is simply remarkable. Shedding her trademark uber-chic Givenchy costumes and lacking make-up, she lets her true beauty shine through. The device of letting us see only her face through her habit has a remarkably powerful pay-off. But more than this, Hepburn perfectly portrays the anguish and emotional conflict of Sister Luke; her expressive face alone conveys more than ten pages of screenplay. Anyone doubting Audrey's acting ability absolutely has to see her performance here; it's a revelation. The supporting cast includes fine performances from Peter Finch, Dean Jagger, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Niall McInnes, and Colleen Dewhurst, complementing Hepburn's performance and creating well-rounded characters of their own.
The Nun's Story is simply remarkable. Few other films are as honest about religion; and, truth be told, few are as intelligent, well-rounded and thought-provoking period. It is a masterpiece.
Rating: 10/10 - Must-See
Saturday, January 10, 2009
It's nice to watch a movie that treats the audience as an adult rather than an ADD-riddled teenager. Last night I watched Doubt, which greatly exceeded my expectations, and today, after a long wait, Ron Howard's adaptation of Frost/Nixon, and both films - probably because of their theatrical roots - have a refreshing amount of respect for their audience. Although Frost/Nixon has a number of flaws and doesn't quite reach the heights of last night's film, it remains an enjoyable and worthwhile film.
The film's plot revolves around the attempts of British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen)'s attempts to get disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon (Frnak Langella) to agree to an interview. Despite the advice of his skeptical producer (Matthew Macfayden), Frost decides it will be good as a publicity stunt if nothing else - little realizing that his whole career will be on the line. He hires two researchers (Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell), who are driven by disgust with Nixon's shameful presidency. Nixon, meanwhile, is driven by a desire to clear his name, and his advisors (Kevin Bacon and Toby Jones) hope that Frost will be an easy target, allowing Nixon to clear his name. After much negotiating and argument, the debates go forward - but it seems that the seasoned Nixon is in control of the situation. It all comes down to a final confrontation over the Watergate scandal, as Frost tries to corner Nixon into confessing and apologizing for his wrong-doing.
At first, Frost/Nixon disappointed me. It stumbled out of the gate by trying to come off as a docu-drama, complete with annoying hand-held camerawork and "interviews" with the film's major characters. This type of filmmaking usually annoys the crap out of me, and it gave me a sense of dread in this one. Moreover, Ron Howard's direction is frustratingly static and workmanlike throughout; the movie has the most undistinguished, banal cinematography I've seen in a major studio film at least since W. The early scenes of character development and backstory are rather stiff and dry, and I must say I was feeling. But once it gets to the actual interviews, Frost/Nixon takes off: the last sixty minutes are absolutely gripping and absorbing cinema, watching these two men square off. Frost/Nixon doesn't quite shake off the stage the way Doubt does, simply because Howard won't let it; but it makes the most of its limitations and becomes an entertaining and thoughtful piece of work.
The movie is undoubtedly character driven, and provides a pair of intriguing protagonists. David Frost is a pretty typical "playboy who finds a cause" character type a la Tom Hanks in Charlie Wilson's War; he has a comfortable career as a talk show host and humorist, living a playboy lifestyle, hanging out with Neil Diamond and Hugh Heffner and dating the likes of actress Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall). His subordinates are committed to bringing Nixon to account for his criminality, but Frost's concern throughout is his career; not taken seriously because of his job and reputation, he's riding largely on his own money (and that of a few benefactors) and quickly finds that the interview will make or break his career (and life). Frost as depicted is not an overly original character, but he's a compelling enough protagonist to hold our interest.
Nixon, meanwhile, is a haunted man, at the end of a successful career besmirched by Watergate and associated scandals. He remains convinced what he did was right (or at least excusable), and is obsessed with the idea of clearing his name. Driven by neuroses and insecurities - his famous temper, intolerance of contrary opinions, and overwhelming inferiority complex, and yet with a fierce intelligence, superficial charm and likeability - he is every bit the driven, focused and ruthless ambitious Nixon, even in forced retirement. It's to the immense credit of Howard, Frank Langella and playwright Peter Morgan that they don't simply make Nixon a caricature, but a sympathetic and complex character.
Michael Sheen's performance is by far the lesser of the two leads. Sheen brings a good amount of humor to the role, but not much edge; it doesn't approach his great performance as Tony Blair in The Queen, for a start. He's an enjoyable character and Sheen holds his own for the most part, but it's nothing spectacular by any means. However, his co-star more than makes up for it.
To say Frank Langella gives a good performance as Richard Nixon would be a horrible understatement. He is phenomenal. He inhabits the skin of Nixon, portraying every aspect of this unsavory but fascinating character. The film deserves much credit for not depicting Nixon as merely a monster, but a haunted, disgraced man driven by long-lasting demons, insecurities and self-loathing shame. His drunken nighttime phone call to Frost is one of the movie's highpoints, where he spews his rage and disappointment to a not-unwilling listener, and the final debate where he's cornered into admitting his guilt is one of the best pieces of acting ever filmed. Langella is simply marvellous, giving one of the best performances I've seen. If he doesn't win Best Actor (or at least receive a nomination), it will be a crime.
The supporting cast is also worth noting. Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt are both excellent as Frost's research assistants with their own agenda (and a cynical sense of humor), and Matthew Macfayden does nice work as Frost's flustered producer. Rebecca Hall is lovely as David's actress girlfriend, and Kevin Bacon does his usual fine work as Nixon's fiercely loyal top aide.
Frost/Nixon is not such a great movie that I will demand you go out and see it at once. But if you want a film that is entertaining and will treat you as an adult, then it's certainly worth a look. If nothing else, you'll get to see one of the best performances to come down the pike in a long time.
Rating: 8/10 - Highly Recommended
Friday, January 9, 2009
Well, here is the first of what I hope to be many (or at least several) reviews of this year's Oscar-contending films. Doubt exceeded my expectations and proved to be an extraordinary film, driven by powerful writing and acting.
Adapted by John Patrick Shanley from his own play, Doubt tells the story of the goings-on at a Catholic school in the early '60s. A poor black boy, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster) joins the school, and is taken under the wing of the kindly Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the parish parson. All goes well, until a strange and ambiguous incident convinces Sister James (Amy Adams), the kindly (and naive) novice nun and school teacher, that Father Flynn is having inappropriate relations with Donald. She tells her superior, the stern but well-intentioned Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) of her suspicions; Aloysius then becomes convinced of the Father's guilt and launches a fierce campaign to relieve him of his position. Is Father Flynn guilty? And if he isn't, what lies behind Sister Aloysius' obsession?
Doubt manages to admirably transcend its stage roots and become appropriately cinematic. Shanley's direction is striking, with wonderful use of cinematography and lighting to create an atmosphere both friendly and foreboding. It takes a lot to make a piece of theatre work as a movie, but the gifted Shanley is more than up to the task. It treats Catholicism seriously and with respect; it doesn't outright advocate religion, but like Fred Zinnemann's The Nun's Story, it gives an honest and decidedly fair portrait of a Church struggling to merge traditional values with modern sensibilities, through a trio of fascinating and ambiguous characters. (Shanley, though, has some fun with audience expectations about nuns and Catholicism unlike Zinnemann's grim film, such as the scene where Aloysius decries Frosty the Snowman as heretical. I always knew there was a reason I never liked that guy!)
What really makes the film work are the screenplay and the performances. Shanley's script is wonderfully written, with sharp, biting, intelligent and economic dialogue and wonderfully efficient pacing, character development and storytelling. The story gains momentum as it goes along, not reliant on overwrought dialogue, ridiculous plot contrivances and silly Macguffins but the actions and thoughts of the characters. The scene where Sister Aloysius confronts Donald's mother (the wonderful Viola Davis) with her suspicions is a case in point: What's going to happen seems obvious from the get-go, but Shanley plays with audience expectations and builds the scene in an unexpected direction. The movie's biggest fault is a clunky, obvious last line which seems jarringly out of place, but it's a forgivable flaw considering the whole. Other than that final false moment, the script and story never once feels contrived, forced, self-conscious or reaching for profundity; it feels like the actions and speech of real humans, and that's the highest complement one can pay to a playwright (or filmmaker).
That Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman give extraordinary performances should come as a surprise to no one, as these are arguably the two most acclaimed actors of this generation. Hoffman probably has the weakest of the three main roles; we learn much less about Father Flynn than his co-stars, beyond that he's a nice guy whose progressive beliefs and open-mindedness make him a natural target for Sister Aloysius's suspicion. The question of his guilt is left largely unresolved (even though he all but admits it late in the film), and his character's ambiguity is both intriguing and frustrating. Still, Hoffman handles the role with aplomb, making the most out of a potentially meager role, and his big confrontation with Streep is alone worth the price of admission. If there's one actor who make dramatic sparks out of the weakest material, it's Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Meryl Streep is even more impressive. Her Sister Aloysius is introduced as an almost caricature stern and cruel Nun, whacking children who fall asleep in the pew and confiscating candy and radios, but almost immediately we begin to see cracks in her facade: an admitted acidic sense of humor, affection towards her fellow nuns - she seems a good enough person within the confines of her profession. More importantly, however, we learn she's a woman driven by personal demons, and not cliched crap like sexual desires or what have you. Although the film never reveals precisely what's tormenting her, it drops intriguing hints - a tragically-ended marriage, a "mortal sin" she admits to having committed, her loud complaints about the male-dominated Church hierarchy - which show she's a damaged woman with a troubled past. She's absolutely convinced what she's doing is right, but is that a basis on which to ruin a man's life and career? And why should it matter to anyone else - a point her scene with Donald's mother drives home? Aloysius is not a cruel woman with an evil agenda, but her motivations are ambiguous to her audience - and even to herself - to a degree that leaves her completely open to interpretation. Unlike Hoffman, Streep has a character that be fascinating in and of herself, but that in no way denigrates her achievement.
The biggest revelation for me, though, is Amy Adams. After years of toiling in bit parts (Catch Me If You Can) and independent films (Junebug), Adams has just recently emerged as a bona fide movie star with her roles in Enchanted, Charlie Wilson's War and Miss Pettigrew Lives For Day. Adams' winsome charm and luminous beauty make her a natural star, but Doubt proves that she's a damned fine actress as well. She maintains elements of her usual persona in the early going, but it's appropriate to the character; Sister James is a poster child for the Catholic nunnery, an improbably innocent and cheery soul who believes the Sacraments to the letter and has never known anything else. She only wants to do what's right, but confronted with Sister Aloysius's personal implosion and Flynn's possible guilt, it becomes nigh-impossible for her to see which way to go. She's the only three of the characters who really undergoes any development, as Flynn remains an enigma and Aloysius's character is revealed rather than formed by the story, and the actress goes a long way in selling the character. Adams gives a wonderful performance, playing it for its strengths and she remains convincing throughout; the very fact that she's able to hold her own against Streep and Hoffman is testament enough to her achievement.
All things considered, Doubt is an extraordinary film. It gets an 9/10 and is my number 2 of 2008 so far.
Rating: 9+/10 - Highest Recommendation
Thursday, January 8, 2009
V for Vendetta (2005) has already gained pop iconography as the favorite of anarchist wannabes left and right. It's an entertaining action movie, but its "edgy" political content is square one radical posturing.
In the not-too-distant future, Britain is (surprise!) a dystopian, totalitarian state ruled by Fascist Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt), which exercises complete control over its citizens, ruling through fear and intimidation. Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) is a naive young Londoner who is saved from a gang of lascivious policemen by V (Hugo Weaving), a mysterious man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. V soon initiates a campaign of terrorism against Sutler's government, hoping to spark a popular insurrection. He uses his charm and coercion to convert Evey to his cause, and soon the public begins to tire of being oppressed. Police Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea), who is assigned to track down V, begins to uncover evidence of government atrocities during the course of his investigation. It all builds up to a massive popular revolution, and Sutler's government stands on the verge of collapse.
V For Vendetta is a film that, while reasonably entertaining on one level as an action film, is laughable in terms of its political views. It awkwardly positions itself between being a liberal position paper for standing up for freedom and civil liberties, and an endorsement of Anarchism for anarchy's sake. On a technical level, the film can't be faulted; on a thematic level, the film is laughably immature.
While the original graphic novel explored the complexities and ambiguities of the dichotomous political views, Anarchism and Fascism, the film takes a simplistic pro-anarchy stand. For all its posturing as a screed against totalitarian excess (with an occasionally insightful line, like V's "People shouldn't be afraid of their government; the government should be afraid of their people"), the movie plays as an endorsement of anarchy (or perhaps Nihilism) and Revolution, with Government as something inherently evil. The film treats us to yet another dystopian future Britain, which we've seen in everything from Brave New World to 1984 to Fahrenheit 451 to Brazil to Children of Men to Land of the Blind. It's nothing we haven't seen many times before, nothing that hasn't been done much better in other films, TV series, and books. As a result, the film's political views have the grace, sophistication, and subtlety of a campus protester, or a teen-aged punk poseur. It might be valid to argue that violent revolution is the only cure for an oppressive regime; but V for Vendetta seems to think that Revolution is a good thing in and of itself. The people launch a massive uprising against the government at the end, and we're expected to cheer; but the film is curiously silent on what exactly the Revolution stands for.
In spite of an occasional verbose speech about lost freedoms and civil liberties, in the end, V doesn't seem to stand for much more than personal revenge (as he was victimized in a government concentration camp) and nihilism. It's hard to care much for Sutler's Big Brother state, but it's equally hard to support V when he seems to lack a goal beyond destruction of authority. The movie seems to think that Revolution for Revolution's sake is the answer, failing to pose, let alone address, the question of "What's next?" This is in fact the key question; 20th Century revolutions in Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, China, Cuba, Algeria and elsewhere went sour as soon as the Revolution was won, leading to the creation of some of the most repressive regimes in the history of Mankind. Is the fact OF Revolution at the end more important than the outcome? Only a hard-core Anarchist - or, more pointedly, a teenager who thinks it's cool to pose as anti-authoritarian - would think so. Even those Revolutions who succeeded had a leader (or leaders) to guide them - with V dead, should we really expect that his uprising will have inherently positive affects? Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, but even such a cliché insight is far beyond the childish Revolution-chic mindset of this film.
V's morality is made more dubious by the methods he employs. His murder of government officials is one thing; his treatment of Evey is something else entirely. He kidnaps Evey, and when his attempts at subtle and charming persuasion fail, he kidnaps her, and sends her to a faux-prison, where she's interrogated, tortured, and broken down until she becomes committed to V's cause. Just when we think we're seeing a verifiable example of Sutler's brutality, we actually see our alleged protagonist in the role of Torturer, sinking down to the level of the enemy. It would be one thing this were presented as an example of V's moral ambiguity, but since the film makes no claims that V is doing anything but good elsewhere, it serves as a rather disquieting sequence.
As a simple film, V for Vendetta is pretty good. The cinematography and visuals are often stunning, really capturing the feel of a bleak dystopian future state. Hugo Weaving deserves much credit for making V an intriguing character, considering we never see his face. And the movie has some interesting ideas, including the use of Stephen Rea's Police Inspector as a plot device which uncovers past government atrocities. The action scenes are entertaining and well-done, if straining credulity at times. The cast is mostly good: while Natalie Portman is merely adequate, Stephen Rey, Stephen Fry, John Hurt, Tim Piggot-Smith, Sinead Cusack and Roger Allam give solid supporting turns.
So, am I being churlish for focusing on V for Vendetta's political views? Well, considering that they're positioned as the centerpiece of the film, I think it's more than fair to focus my review on them. V for Vendetta has nothing more insightful to say about politics and terrorism than a college freshman who's read a Michael Moore book. And for a film that, while somewhat entertaining, positions itself as a political statement, this is a serious flaw.
Rating: 6/10 - Use your own discretion
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Duck, You Sucker! (or A Fistful of Dynamite) is one of Sergio Leone's oddest and most problematic films, and not just for the silly title. I've seen the 138 minute cut numerous times until my old VHS tape gave out last year, and in that form I always considered it one of Leone's lesser efforts. I finally got to see the extended 155 minute cut in my Topics in Film Class last fall (as part of a larger unit on Leone) and I loved it. A rewatch last night, however, confirmed that my problems weren't merely with the editing of the truncated version, but with the film itself. It's not in the same league as Leone's masterpieces - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the Once Upon a Times - and it's as frustrating and problematic as Once Upon a Time in America, and not nearly as rewarding. In Groggy-speak though, it's Leone's equivalent of Doctor Zhivago or Major Dundee - a fascinating film whose myriad flaws make it all the more interesting.
The film takes the general form of the Zapata Westerns, the subgenre of Spaghettis which transposed political issues of the '60s and '70s onto Mexico's various revolutions. Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) is a grotesque Mexican bandit who comes across John Mallory (James Coburn), an IRA terrorist working in revolutionary Mexico as a miner/terrorist. Miranda decides that Mallory's "holy water" - he is a walking munitions dump, replete with nitroglycerin, dynamite and bombs of all sort - will be perfect for his plans to rob the Mesa Verde bank, and he none-too-gently persuades John to join him. Eventually they arrive in Mesa Verde, but when Juan robs the bank, he finds that it's been turned into a political prison for captured revolutionaries. Unwittingly drawn into the Mexican Revolution by his "friend", Juan finds himself in the cross-hairs of counter-revolutionary troops led by the brutal Gunther Ruiz (Antoine Saint-John), leading to an escalating amount of violence and brutality - with little or no hope of escape.
Leone's film is somewhat schizophrenic. It's obviously intended as a critique of the Zapata films, whose attempts at political commentary more often than not turned into juvenile, unconsidered Marxism (see A Bullet For the General for the most egregious example). The first half of the movie (save the bizarre and powerful opening scene) is more in line with Leone's adventurous and violent Dollars trilogy than the mature and elegiac Once Upon a Time in the West, but it takes an abrupt turn after the bank robbery and becomes a somber political film. Its nihilism, however, proves much more interesting than the sophomoric leftism practiced by most of its peers.
The opening scene is the most-discussed part of the film, and certainly worth examining. As Juan hitches a ride on a luxurious stagecoach, filled with a cross-section of upper-class society. The scene quickly turns into a grotesque parody of Eisenstein, showing extreme close-ups of the aristocrats as they eat and mock their fellow passenger. The political message of this scene is obvious and completely unsubtle; but lest we have too much sympathy with Juan and his peasant class, the scene is abruptly interrupted by a stage robbery - engineered by Juan's family. Juan's family robs the passengers and inflicts humilitation on them - stripping the men naked, raping the aristocratic woman (Maria Monti) who had earlier fantasized about the promiscuity of peasants like Juan, and they are ultimately dumped into a pig sty. Leone immediately stakes out his position, immediately perverting the revolutionary ideal - the simple peasant rising up against his capitalist oppressor - with an overt display of vulgarity and violence. It's a difficult scene to watch at times, but nonetheless it works, effectively foreshadowing what's to come.
Leone continually presses home the futility of revolutionary politics. Juan's big speech about the futility of Revolution is rather obvious but manages to be one of the most pointed things any film has ever said about this issue. Rejecting the romanticized view of his fellow Spaghetti directors - Damiano Damiani and Sergio Corbucchi most notably - Leone sees Revolution as something bloody, and ultimately futile. The movie reinforces this message with its almost endless scenes of massacre - most notably the death of Juan's family at the hands of Ruiz's men (unseen except for the tragic aftermath), the execution of men betrayed by revolutionary leader Dr. Villega (Romolo Valli), and the crane shot of prisoners being slaughtered en masse by the retreating Federales. There are perhaps a bit too many of these scenes, but they serve their purpose within the story. Revolution is a violent, bloody thing, with men like Villega benefitting as the proletariats and peasants die en masse. And only rarely is anything actually achieved but a repositioning of the status quo - as the futile cycle of coups and warfare that engulfed Mexico itself from 1910-1921 proved.
The film nonetheless has a number of flaws which prevent it from reaching the status of Leone's masterpieces. One of the movie's biggest problems are the villains and supporting characters. Gunther Ruiz (Antoine Saint-John, of The Wind and the Lion), the presumably German officer who provides our main antagonist, is a weakling with little screentime and few dialogues; the most menacing thing he does in the film is viciously brush his teeth. His henchmen are pushovers, making Darth Vader's Stormtroopers look competent by comparison, thus creating little dramatic tension in the later parts of the film. Other seemingly important characters - Rik Battaglia's revolutionary general, Franco Graziosi's crooked Governor - flit in and out of the story seemingly at random, without making any real impression. Our main characters and Villega are interesting personages, but the world they move through is full of ciphers. Perhaps that's the point - the Revolution is the villain, not any individual - but the fact that Leone sets up such characters and then abandons them (without their having much to do to begin with) proves problematic.
Another problem is that the film suffers from serious problems of pacing. The film's first hour or so is leisurely build-up, establishing characters and conflicts, but as it makes it shift into more serious territory it stumbles a bit. The movie jumps quickly from John and Juan's battle with Ruiz at the bridge, to the grotto massacre, to the night-time executions, with little transition between these scenes. The individual scenes are powerful enough, but the quick transitions between them seem jarring and disconcerting; only during John and Juan's train journey does the film fully regain its footing. John's flashbacks are also a bit overdone - the final one in particular goes on beyond all reason and goes from poignant to ridiculous. The movie also has a few odd moments of cartoonishness - most notably Juan's vision of John with a Bank of Mesa Verde banner glowing above his head - which are jarring and don't seem to have much purpose, amusing as some of them are.
Technically, Leone is at the top of his game. He makes wonderful use of editing and juxtaposting close-ups with landscapes throughout. He handles the action scenes with aplomb and the more intimate sequences are also skillfully directed. Although Giuseppi Ruzzolini is not quite a distinguished a cinematographer as Tonino Delli Colli, he still manages to make the rugged Almerian plains eerily beautiful, as well as the beautifully shot Ireland sequences. Ennio Morricone's eclectic and decidedly quirky score - especially the jaunty Sean Sean Sean theme sequeing into Edda Dell'Orso's beautiful soprano - is a bit jarring at first but contributes beautifully to the film.
Rod Steiger gives a decidedly grotesque performance as Juan. His character certainly comes across as a pale pastiche of Eli Wallach's Tuco, only more vulgar and overtly violent. Steiger indulges his hammier instincts, with a ridiculously comic accent. And yet, Steiger manages to draw some pathos out of his character - not surprisingly, the scene where he finds his dead sons is remarkably affected - not the least because Steiger's mouth is shut for most of the scene. Still, his realization during the bank robbery that he's been the victim of a cruel joke by Mallory (as he finds vault after vault of political prisoners) and the poignancy of his final plea - "What about me?" - as he's left alone in the midst of a Revolution he doesn't believe in and never wanted is remarkable.
More impressive, in spite of a no-less embarrassing accent, is James Coburn. His John seems throughout to be a nihilistic dilettante, lacking any real motivation as he flits around Mexico on his motorcycle. His suicidal destructiveness, embodied by his arsenal of explosiveness, is his defining characteristic. As the film progresses, however, and the flashbacks become more clear, we discover the source of his personality - burned out by an aborted revolution in Ireland, in which he was betrayed by his best friend (David Warbeck), he is a bitter, disllusioned shell of a man with nothing to live for. However, as he sees the massive human toll of the revolution - most notably on his unlikely friend Juan - John regains some sense of purpose, and ends up going out in perhaps the ultimate blaze of glory. Coburn's given only a handful of comparable performances (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid comes to mind), and in spite of his accent is a marvellous, convincing and very human John.
The rest of the cast isn't worth mentioning, with one exception. Romolo Valli gives a layered performance as the dignified Villega - like Gabriele Ferzetti in Once Upon a Time in the West, this veteran Italian actor serves as a reserved ballast to the more flamboyant American co-stars, and like Ferzetti he gets many of the film's best dramatic moments - most notably being forced to watch the executions of the men he's betrayed.
All things considered, Duck, You Sucker is a fascinating film, however problematic. The film's message is its title - the only sane course of action is to keep out of all things political, lest you lose your head. But as Leone hopes to show, even this nihilistic recommendation isn't really possible. The key ultimately is survival - and that is difficult enough without ideological baggage.
Rating: 8/10 - Highly Recommended