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Decade

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Robert De Niro‘s second film as director is methodical, atmospheric, and very well acted. It is also a long, hard slog. Ostensibly about the origins of the CIA through the eyes of altruistic Yale Skull and Bonesman Matt Damon, we watch as his sensitive poetry student becomes a soulless spy master, bringing dread and calamity to all he loves while doing the dirty work of the agency.

I like Matt Damon. He is perpetually ignored or overshadowed in films where he delivers. He was the engine of The Talented Mr. Ripley, yet all of the good notices went to Jude Law. He was the most interesting character in The Departed, but the buzz went to DiCaprio, Nicholson and Marky Mark. He was the best thing about The Martian by far, so good that when you left him on the lonely planet to check in with all of the smart, hip, “every day is casual Friday” types at NASA, you quickly became bored.  Here, he is again very good, even though you sense he is shadowing Michael Corleone, becoming more brittle, more shallow, and more sinister as each scene progresses. Yet, even at his most unconscionable, Damon gives you a glimpse into his tender and sensitive side.  His scenes with his son, both as a child and as an adult (Eddie Redmayne) are touching.  It is a very strong performance.

The story itself is also intriguing. The theme of the lure of patriotism and secrecy to the yearning and vulnerable Damon is well-developed, for a time. Unfortunately, the film is over long and eventually, repetitive. Characters tell Damon on at least half a dozen occasions “trust no one” or something to that effect, a sentiment that hardly needs to be verbalized when every single scene in the film communicates that you really shouldn’t trust anyone.

Still, this is a pretty decent flick.

 

 

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I just caught this in its entirety, and I had been thinking about the film in a political sense as well.  For those who might be unfamiliar, this is an Aaron Sorkin adaptation of his stage play, where a callow, dispirited and cynical JAG lawyer (Tom Cruise) is redeemed in his defense of two Marines on trial for the murder of a third after a hazing incident known as a “Code Red.”  The incident was ordered by Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson), a rough and ready, cigar chomping patriot, who is content to let the Marines be convicted as collateral damage to a higher purpose (or so he would have us believe).

This a Hollywood vehicle of yore, with big names (Demi Moore was at her zenith here) and bigger speeches, and some of Nicholson’s lines have become ingrained in everyday talk (“You can’t handle the truth!”)

There can be no dispute – Jessup is a villain.  He lets his men hang.  Early on, he ostracizes Moore with a sexual putdown.  He loathes Cruise and his “faggoty white unform” and “Harvard mouth.”  He is even, in a very clunky line at the end, quasi-revealed as an anti-Semite (“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg?” — Weinberg had been sitting at counsel’s table minding his own business)  Jessup is a vain liar, and encases his ambition in the veneer of higher goals.  When you walked out of that film in 1992, you enjoyed Colonel Jessup, but you likely did not endorse him.

Twenty five years later, I got to thinking about Jessup and President Trump.  I have become convinced that a modern audience would walk out of the theater much more kindly disposed to Jessup, even after having had his monumental faults exposed by Cruise.  There would be greater sympathy for his swagger, and his vulgarity and cruelty would be more easily tossed off.  After all, he’s a doer, not some snide lawyer with a “Harvard mouth.”  Indeed, both Jessup and Trump are fixated on a wall (“because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall”).  Ask folks today, “Who is the hero?” and even though Jessup appears to be headed toward disgrace and a court-martial at the end of the film, I’m confident you’d have a near even split.

As the excesses of Trump pile on, seemingly without a dent in 40 to 45% of those who are periodically asked to provide a thumbs up or a thumbs down, I’ve heard any number of explanations, but the most widely disseminated is confirmation of the deplorability of his supporters, reducing a campaign flub to a gaffe (aptly defined by Michael Kinsley as “when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say”).  If I am right about A Few Good Men, that conclusion walks hand-in-hand with the Rise of Jessup.  The same mouth breathers who would conclude that Jack Nicholson is the hero opted for Trump over Hillary.  The same folks who support a raving narcissist who can say or tweet most anything would stand by a raging Jessup, as he screams, “I’m gonna’ rip the eyes out of your head and puke into your dead skull “  I doubt it is that easy, but I can see the appeal of assuming the dummies and the dark heart of America have finally combined to bring about Nero.

I think, however, that easy conclusion misses a few things.

First, Cruise would probably be respected by the Jessupites, even if loathed.  He bested their champion in the courtroom, and even though he’s a puling fancypants in his dress whites, you gotta’ give him his due.  With regard to Trump, however, I think the deplorables don’t have the same feelings about the forces – Clinton, the media, the punditry – who they feel were and are arrayed against him.  Because they conclude that those forces are every bit as corrupt as Jessup, their fealty remains strong.  As a graduate of the Harvard of the Shenandoah, I get where they are coming from.

Also, Trump, like Jessup, presents himself as not only a doer, but a bulwark against the corrosive forces of the establishment and their collective Harvard mouths.  I mean, three lawyers against a man who stands on the wall?  Come on.  Not even close.  There is a moment in Cruise’s cross-examination that emphasizes the distinction:  “Yeah, but it wasn’t a real order, was it? After all, it’s peace time. He wasn’t being asked to secure a hill or advance on a beachhead.”  That, of course, is the massage of the smart set.  There are orders and then, there are “real orders”, and invariably, the more the order disadvantages the snoots at their cocktail parties, the more it is coincidentally less real.

Perhaps most importantly, Jessup is just simply a helluva lot more entertaining than Cruise.  He has all the best lines, and in an age where entertainment and politics have seamlessly melded, that’s a quality that should not be underestimated.  Jessup and Trump are stars and they positively bask in the freedom to engage in the crudity that leads lessers to the podium,  spouse and dogs at their side, to ask forgiveness.  That hubris laid Jessup low.  But that was a quarter century ago.

As for the film, it holds up okay.  The Sorkin patter is snappy and smart but hadn’t yet been reduced to the gibberish of The West Wing, and Cruise and Nicholson define star power, both giving their all.

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Alistair Sim is by far and away the best Ebenezer Scrooge.  He is hardened and fierce yet he carries a barely perceptible regret and tenderness that makes his eventual transformation more of a de-icing than a bullet-dodged.  His exhilaration and mirth upon redemption are infectious, his realization he can play some awesome practical jokes on the likes of his housekeeper and clerk is hilarious, and his heartfelt apologies are actually very moving.  This is my favorite of the film adaptations.  DVR at once.

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A movie only an Irishman could love. I don’t know what to say. John Ford’s classic starts off as a cartoon, with Irish folk so spritely and impish you half expect a pot o’ gold around every corner. They are there to welcome Yank John Wayne, who comes to the land of his birth and immediately falls for spinster Maureen O’Hara. I expect she was supposed to play as a fiery and obstinate redhead, but really, she’s the first truly bipolar heroine in American film. At no point is she satisfied, and poor Wayne has to subjugate himself again and again for this loon. To the point he is labeled a spineless coward, primarily due to O’Hara’s chemical imbalance.

Wayne’s reticence is borne of a dark secret (the flashback provides the few memorable, even iconic, images in Ford’s film). And Wayne is surprisingly good in the role. But he’s stuck in a film with so many bizarre caricatures, it seems especially cruel to see him work.

There’s humor here, and some sweetness, but the picture doesn’t travel well, unlike other films that seem out of time, like Gone With the Wind. There’s also a strange mix of lush photography of the countryside and just awful soundstage footage too clumsy for its year (1952).

The lesson is also a little peculiar.  Let your harridan of a psychotic wife drive you to violence, with an entire drunk and backward town offering a stick to beat her with, and she’ll finally have sex with you.  Actually, that’s really the best part of the picture, and for all its faults, what makes it kitschy fun.

Good to see a young Jack MacGowran, the director Burke Dennings (the one who got his head twisted completely around) in The Exorcist.

This review was written by an old friend and sparring partner under the nom de plume “Pincher Martin” from a chat room I have contributed to for nearly 20 years.  It is an accurate reflection of my feelings on the film and a great write-up of an overlooked and underrated picture.

“Over thirty years ago, I was living in LA and found myself one day in the San Fernando Valley, lining up to see a movie in one of those mall cineplexes that were common at the time. I forget what made me drive over to San Fernando from Westwood, where I was a student living in an apartment, but whatever it was, I know it didn’t have anything to do with the movie I ended up seeing.

I had heard nothing about Manhunter. I’d read no reviews of the film. I’d seen no ads for it. It wasn’t considered a big film at the time. I knew nothing about Michael Mann, the film’s director, who was just some guy known for his work on the new TV series Miami Vice, a show I didn’t watch. I also knew nothing about William Peterson, the star of the film. While several of Peterson’s co-stars in Manhunter would later become familiar to movie-goers (Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Tom Noonan, Stephan Lang), I knew nothing about any of them when I walked into the theater that day. The movie had a cast of unknowns to me.

But it wasn’t uncommon for me at the time to go see a movie on the spur of the moment whenever I had a couple of free hours, and so it must have been some serendipitous event that allowed me to see that day what I now consider to be one of the best films of the nineteen-eighties and one of the best cop films I’ve ever seen.

I loved the movie immediately, and I’ve not changed my mind about it over the last thirty years. I was transfixed by the story I saw on the screen that afternoon. The small movie theater was almost empty (a scene which must’ve been replicated all over the country, since the movie did poorly at the box office), but I didn’t care. Certain scenes in the film made such an impression on my young mind that I could still remember them in detail years later, although I did not have a chance to watch the movie a second time until many years later. Even scenes that were not particularly important in advancing the plot left an impact on me that afternoon because of their aesthetic appeal

I still remember, for example, the blue tint used in an early scene showing Kim Greist and William Peterson as they lay in bed at night with the black-blue ocean behind them. It’s simply breathtaking.

Manhunter was based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, who would later become famous for writing The Silence of the Lambs, which became the way most people were introduced to the character Hannibal Lector, either through the novel or the film.

But Manhunter was my introduction to Hannibal Lector, and it was an intro which later made me lukewarm about Anthony Hopkin’s more celebrated portrayal of the character. Brian Cox’s Hannibal was very different from Anthony Hopkins’s. In his short stint as the character, Cox played Lector with more believable directness, suaveness, and quickness of mind, and with none of Hopkin’s annoying affectations.

Manhunter has perhaps the best scene I’ve ever seen of what I’ll call a realization by the protagonist.

This scene never fails to astound me. It’s one of the few times in a Hollywood action flick that you can see a character thinking through a problem and coming to a realization in a way that seems almost believable. (L.A. Confidential is one of the few other films with this feature which comes to mind.)

The scene, which unfortunately is cut in some versions of Manhunter available today, lasts over seven minutes and involves just two characters – Will Graham played by William Peterson and Jack Crawford played by Dennis Farina. Listen to how the music gradually and quietly enters the film’s soundtrack at about the five-minute twenty-second mark on the youtube video, building up to enhance the tension of the moment when Graham realizes how Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer named “The Tooth Fairy,” is picking his victims.

Manhunter has several remarkable scenes showing FBI agents at work. They’re seriously done, following Thomas Harris’s careful research for his novel. Mann, however, is too obsessed with his own visual style to hew too close to reality. He dresses his agents up more as if he’s thinking of letting them put in appearances on Miami Vice than he does for the real work of the 1980s’ FBI. But it works.

Some critics claim that Manhunter was a precursor of the TV series CSI, which also starred William Peterson, and later branched into a franchise of similar TV shows. I’m not sure that’s the case, but it’s an interesting theory. It’s probably true the movie must’ve helped Peterson more than a decade later when he won the starring role in the first CSI TV show. The movie and the TV series had a similar way of looking at evidence.

Whatever its influence, the movie’s reputation has skyrocketed over the last three decades. After bombing at the box office in 1986, the movie is something of a cult classic today ( 94% on Rotten Tomatoes). Most likely, this had to do with the commercial and critical success of The Silence of the Lambs, which came out five years after Manhunter. The Silence of the Lambs is an excellent film, but in many ways I prefer Manhunter.

Brett Ratner would later release his own cinematic version of the novel Red Dragon in 2002 with a more faithful rendering of the original story. I think it was a mistake.

Manhunter is the superior film in almost every respect. It deviates from the novel in ways which improve the story for film; the acting is better; the soundtrack/music is better. Only in the editing of the final scenes and a few other details is it inferior to Ratner’s fim.

The plot in the novel Red Dragon is too complex for a feature film. Mann in Manhunter wisely chose to focus on the chase – without the need for the complex twist at the end. But Ratner’s Red Dragon made the mistake of trying to emulate the complexities of the novel rather than streamline the story for film.

As far as the acting, Red Dragon has the more acclaimed cast. At least on paper. Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Emily Watson, Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Mary Louise-Parker are all celebrated in their profession, with multiple Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA awards and nominations from their peers.

But Ratner didn’t get much from these names. Hopkins was too old. Fiennes and Norton were miscast. Ratner chose to play Mary Louise-Parker like she’s smart trailer trash. Watson was not bad in the blind role, but Joan Allen was better. And Stephen Lang is better than the soporific Hoffman as Freddie Lounds.

Anthony Hopkins is a superb actor, but he was a glassy-eyed 65-year-old actor in 2002 when Red Dragon came out. He had lost the menace he possessed more than decade earlier when The Silence of the Lambs was released.

Brain Cox, on the other hand, was excellent in his short stint as Hannibal Lector. He underplayed the menace with more believable suaveness and quickness of mind. Perhaps that’s because Cox was only forty-years-old when he played the role and so much more alert-looking than Hopkins, who sometimes seemed like he was battling astigmatism whenever he glanced in the direction of the camera.

Mann gets so much more out of all his actors. Peterson is more convincing as Graham than is Norton, who sometimes comes across more as if he’s a depressed professor rather than a haunted cop.

Tom Noonan was a revelation as Francis Dolarhyde. That character requires a large, strong, ugly man to play the role, whereas the somewhat effete, handsome Fiennes is simply not believable in it. His voice is too affected, even when he damps it down for the role. (This is an excellent example of how a classically-trained Brit actor can’t fit into just any role an American actor can do.) Noonan is a huge man who looks like he could be a serial killer.

One can’t compare the two movies without mentioning the soundtrack of Manhunter. It’s one of the best soundtracks in a feature film I’ve ever heard. I bought it and listen to it on some of my playlists. And yet the music was criticized by movie critics as too synthetic when the movie was first released. (Go to Youtube to listen to the soundtrack. It’s stupendous.)

Manhunter has become a cult classic for a reason. The movie was unfairly neglected by movie-going audiences and maligned by movie critics when it was first released in the theaters. (For what it’s worth, the novel was also unfairly neglected by book readers when it was first published.) But the success of The Silence of the Lambs got Manhunter another look from both critics and audiences, and that second viewing has allowed the film to be reevaluated to its proper stature.

13 Things You Never Knew About ‘Manhunter,’ the First Hannibal Lecter Movie

2) For the lead role of FBI profiler Will Graham, the filmmakers considered Nick Nolte, Richard Gere, Mel Gibson, and Paul Newman. Mann ultimately went with Petersen, after seeing him play a relentless sleuth in 1985’s “To Live and Die in L.A.”

3) For the part of Hannibal Lecktor (yep, that’s how it was spelled in the script), the producers thought of John Lithgow, Mandy Patinkin, and Brian Dennehy. It was Dennehy, however, who recommended Cox.

Mandy Patinkin as Hannibal Lector?  Interesting choice.

Read items #8, #9, and #10 to see just how tight the budget was on the movie. They explain why the end of Manhunter was so poorly edited.

Anyone who watches movies knows that some of the greatest offerings of falsity come in the package of authenticity, and this is never more so than when a filmmaker takes his shot at rural or back home America. The pitfalls are many, and invariably, films about the small town succumb to oppressive nostalgia (Hoosiers), salt-of-the-earth worship (Promised Land), the presence of an impossibly attractive lead as he or she slums (Mel Gibson in The River, George Clooney in The Perfect Storm), cutesy “we’re jes’ folks” condescension (Passion Fish), amped up mythology (Out of the Furnace) or just plain old moronic messages, like money doesn’t buy happiness or home is where the heart is or safe sex is the best sex.

There are exceptions (Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade, Carl Franklin’s One False Move, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone), but they are rare and they are not current. In Mud, Take Shelter, and this film, a story about two modern Arkansas families drawn into a violent confrontation upon the death of their shared patriarch, writer-director Jeff Nichols cements that he can translate the patterns, pace and feel of the small town like no other. The actors portraying the family members are natural and unburdened by archetype, and the town itself is not presented to you as a metaphor or cautionary tale, just a town.

What Nichols does with actors and setting he achieves with tone. The families are seemingly in as safe a place as you can be, but when their animosities surface, their very environment becomes foreboding, and the pressure mounts accordingly. As the calamities befall them, there are no revelations or Hollywood speeches or screenwriter dot-connecting. Nichols is content to let you be the judge of what it all means.

This was Echol’s first film, and that may explain its brevity (about 90 minutes). The result is some backstory that is a tad rushed, but nonetheless, this is a gripping, thoughtful picture.

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In the vein of “awful people who became awful because they suffered childhood trauma” family drama movies, this one is not half bad. That’s mainly due to Adam Scott, who is one of the more versatile and under-appreciated actors working today.  Scott plays the damaged, stuck in the hometown older brother who picks up his younger brother and the brother’s girlfriend from college and proceeds to fall in love with the latter. Scott is a depressive, an alternately cruel and then apologetic anti-hero, who maligns the girlfriend as a whore who will hurt his naive little brother. The problem is that she succumbs to his damaged entreaties, thus partially cementing his earlier uncharitable appraisal.

There is the obligatory childhood trauma and the big reveal, and it could all be so pat, except for Scott’s ability to communicate real suffering and writer-director Lee Toland Krieger’s insistence on taking these characters seriously instead of using them as charming archetypes to condescend to the audience. More to the credit, there is no wrap-up or deeper understanding. It starts messy and ends up hopeful but still messy, which is commendable.

There are problems.  The hometown is overpopulated by distinctive characters, the father (J.K. Simmons) is too seminal to be so underdeveloped and the hipster soundtrack is now so obligatory it borders on self-parody.  Still, a worthwhile watch on a rainy Saturday.  Thanks, Xmastime.