Archive

Drama

Amazon.com: The Sand Pebbles [DVD] [1966]: Movies & TV

They really don’t make these kinds of films anymore. The broad, historical sweeping epics which found fashion in the 80s were for the most part not very good and none had any of the leisurely quiet moments or ambiguity of this picture. They blared big budget bloat and were neither smart or interesting. If you don’t believe me, give Gandhi, The Last Emperor, A Passage to India, The Mission, or Out of Africa another whirl without getting heavy-lidded. And if you want to venture into the 90s, three words of warning: Oliver Stone’s Alexander.  Or, Braveheart, The Patriot, Gangs of New York, Rob Roy, all blood and volume and ghastly excess. Titanic, beautifully photographed, with a script written for the mind of a chipmunk. Dances with Wolves? Lush, dull and uninvolving.

The 2000s? They remade Ben Hur into Grand Theft Chariot.

There are outliers. The Last of the Mohicans is very good and Master and Commander stellar. Gladiator is fun, but the fights and the CGI are what you remember.  

That’s about it.

The decline of the historical saga makes sense. The universality of social media and technology supplanted the novelty of on-site location in foreign, exotic locales, and today,  perhaps the quickest way to shut down a pitch meeting would be to explain that your film opens in/with “China 1926” and is 3 hours long.

The story revolves around the American naval presence in China in the 1920s and the travails of one particular vessel, the San Pablo (think hard to an old history course and see if you can dredge up “gunboat diplomacy”). Steve McQueen is the quiet, unsophisticated engineer, a grit-under-your-fingernails loner who has a good heart. An impossibly young Candice Bergen is an American missionary schoolteacher who takes a liking to him. Their relationship is interrupted by her missionary father, who believes the  American presence is creating havoc and, naively, that they are immune to the brutalities of war, and McQueen’s captain (Richard Crenna), a by-the-book leader losing his grip on the men with a vainglorious streak that proves lethal. Then, there are the tensions amongst the crew (which includes Richard Attenborough, Simon Oakland and the just recently deceased Gavin MaCleod), as some settle on McQueen as their own bad juju Jonah.

The visuals are stunning, the drama authentic, even in the show-ier style of the time. There’s also great but subtle cynicism in the picture, which quietly indicts American imperialism and cultural bigotry while reinforcing its values, and it has a decided championing of the little guy, be he Chinese or American.

But what really struck me were the visuals and the leisurely pace.  To watch a movie on the big screen where the grandeur and beauty of a foreign land was a star equal to the actors and 3 hours at the movies was just ducky must have been quite something in 1966.

An aside; when I was was a kid, I’d come from grade school and religiously watch the 4 o’clock movie, which included this picture. To be precise, it included parts of this picture, because you had to fit it into 2 hours, with commercials.

The movie, directed by Robert Wise, was nominated for best picture, cementing McQueen as a star (he was nominated for best actor his one and only time here).

On Amazon Prime. Turn the phone off, order Chinese and give it a go.

the gambler james caan – FM For Music

Meditative and deliberative, Director Karel Reisz gives us entree’ into the world of Axel Freed (James Caan), college literature teacher by day and degenerate gambler by night. Though it may be too much of a throwback for some, writer James Toback paints an anguished and multi-faceted portrait of a moth perpetually drawn to flame, a man who has internalized his addiction as a statement of freedom, verve and iconoclasm. However, Caan seems to sense he is a fraud, and as the film progresses, he gets himself into the kind of trouble where his family and not even his sympathetic bookmaker (a young, manic Paul Sorvino) can help.  It is here where the heart of the picture beats.  You watch Caan agonize, humbled, and then terrified as the wise guys become menacing rather than an ornament to his cool. Soon, there is a dawning, if not the expected one.

Caan is unsympathetic yet engaging, and he is always a star. He’s the grandson of a furniture magnate, and his mother is a doctor, and when things get very bad financially, he always has them as a crutch, an out, making his consort with flashy thugs and the more dangerous element of 1970s New York City a bit of a conceit. No matter what he wagers, his philosophizing about risk and chance is just so much b.s. because he high wires with a net.

But his net are people of substance – an up-by-your-bootstraps Lithuanian immigrant and a physician tending to the poor – and you can see his shame in comparison. It is Caan’s mother who, when bailing him out, reminds him of where his money is going, into a criminal element that preys on the weak.

It nags him, but he seems to revel in slumming, which includes his relationship with his Texas girlfriend, a very good Lauren Hutton, a good time gal who has been around the block and down into the sewer with an addict before. Her revelation of that journey and her eventual, limp, exhausted rejection of a spiraling Caan are piercing.

Caan is compelling as a self-deluding addict desperate to survive his debts and his own moral rot (he was struggling with cocaine when he made the picture). Toback smartly gives us the opportunity to watch him teach. Caan seems like a really good professor of literature, which is important because there has to be some “there” there in which to invest. When I heard they remade this film with Mark Wahlberg, I assumed the script was revised so he was a high school shop teacher.

Jerry’s Fielding’s soundtrack is spot on, evoking the dread and juice of gambling.

The ending is a bit rushed, but otherwise, this is a solid picture and a worthy third of the triple feature of California Split and Mississippi Grind. On Amazon Prime.

In America (2002) directed by Jim Sheridan • Reviews, film + cast •  Letterboxd

Ireland week continues in the Filmvetter household. Tuesday was Philomena. Last night, In America. Between them, I’ve crammed enough emotion in the pit of my stomach to fashion a golf-ball-sized tumor.

At least with Philomena, there were respites, where I could alleviate my welling up with some levity between Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

Not so last night. I’ve seen many movies with incredibly poignant scenes and heartbreakingly rendered familial dynamics. There are scenes in Terms of Endearment that still create a lump in my throat. A friend, without warning, once recommended a Kevin Kline film, Life as a House, that I don’t know whether it was good or bad, but I do know it shattered me. And he knew my particular vulnerabilities. He knew I cried at Cocoon. He knew I cried harder at the Star Trek movie where Spock died, such that my wife was reduced to soothingly (no doubt, eyes rolling, as they should have been) imparting, “It’s alright. He comes back in the sequel.” But no warning was given, and Kevin Kline loses his job and gets a cancer diagnosis in the first 10 minutes, whereafter he reunites with his wayward son, and they build a house and Kline dies. Brutal. I hold the recommendation against him to this day.

I digress.

Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father, My Left Foot) portrays an Irish family escaping a tragedy to come to New York City in 1980. The parents, Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton, each deal with the loss in their own way; he shuts it off and turns inward, she insists the tragedy in no way hurt her daughters. They land at a run-down tenement where the drug addicts inhabit the stoop and an artist neighbor (Djimon Hounsou) screams and pounds the wall, plagued by his own tragedy. Given their innocence, their assimilation is nerve-wracking (the most harrowing scene being the playing of a carnival game) and uplifting, as they integrate into a community that is alternatively welcoming and hostile. It ends as an unforgettable fable, which allows for acceptance.

It’s the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen. I know I had seen it before, but I didn’t remember much of it, which seems impossible. I now assume it was so heart wrenching and piercing the first time that I probably wept uncontrollably and then did everything I could to ban it from my consciousness. Sheridan wrote it with his two daughters after his own personal tragedy, and their pain and tribute is stitched in the film’s marrow.

The performances are flawless (Morton and Hounsou were Oscar-nominated). The two girls who play the daughters (Sarah and Emma Bolger) give the most natural turns I’ve ever seen.

A gem.

Da 5 Bloods movie review & film summary (2020) | Roger Ebert


I ran across this today on The Ringer:  “Sadly, having been snubbed by the Globes and the SAGs, Delroy Lindo would do well to even get an Oscar nomination—let alone win—for his career-defining performance in Spike Lee’s Da 5 BloodsDa 5 Bloods may struggle to get any Oscars love outside of a Supporting Actor nod for the late Chadwick Boseman, as Spike Lee also failed to garner a WGA nomination for his screenplay. All told, it’s a disappointing outcome for one of the best films of the year. (Granted, the Academy doesn’t have the best track record at recognizing greatness—Green Book won Best Picture just two years ago.)”

I’m more than happy to kick Green Book until I’m blue in the face. And when I saw Da 5 Bloods many months ago, I was just happy to leave it alone.  But now, it may well garner some awards, so, I am duty bound to weigh in.

The picture is awful.  Didactic, overwrought and pointless, with a decidedly cheap feel.  While Delroy Lindo is a force, he is unrestrained to the point of wince-inducement.  His turn as a Vietnam veteran who has gone over to the dark side (he wears a MAGA hat) is so over-the-top, I started to fiddle with my phone because I felt bad for him, for the other actors, and then, myself.  To call his turn “career-defining” may well be accurate, but if that is meant in a good way, what a horrible verdict on his fantastic work in Clockers and Crooklyn, two excellent Lee movies where Lindo soars rather than perspires.

The film is also wildly uneven, at turns madcap screwball and then deeply serious.  Lee had the same problem with Black KkKlansman, but that picture at least held together as just barely watchable (until the atonal offensive coda shoe-horned in at the end). 

Da 5 Bloods also looks and feels like a low-budget student film.  Lee makes the Mỹ Sơn temples look like a place the Brady Bunch found a haunted Tiki idol.  Worse, Lee doesn’t really know what to with action sequences (see The Miracle of St. Anna), so all the running around just comes off like kids playing war.

All of that aside, even if the film had been passable, it could never have overcome the Road Runner-esque demise of a character who you just knew had to step on a land mine hidden in the jungles of what appears to be Tarzana.  He’s backing up and you just know it, and then, the cartoonish visual aftermath . . .

You can’t believe it. 

On Netflix.

Twilight (1998 film) - Wikipedia
Still of The Night: Amazon.fr: Meryl Streep, Roy Scheider, Jessica Tandy,  Joe Grifasi, Sara Botsford, Richmond Hoxie, Rikke Borge, Josef Sommer,  Irving Metzman, Larry Joshua, Randy Jurgenson, Robert Benton, Meryl Streep,  Roy

Robert Benton was no slouch (Kramer v. Kramer, Places in the Heart). Indeed, he wrote and directed one of my favorite films (Nobody’s Fool), and I could watch Paul Newman sell Tang. Throw in Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman and James Garner (and super young Reese Witherspoon and Liev Schreiber) in a noir-ish tale of an old Hollywood murder and it seems can’t miss. But miss Twilight does. Sarandon is too young for the role of the former grand dame and the love story between her and Newman is unconvincing. Worse, the mystery is just not that intriguing. Still, the picture has Newman, who is wry and world-weary in that Newman way. Hackman is fantastic, as always, and Garner is just the right mix of folksy and sinister.

As for Still of the Night, it alternates between psychological thriller and moody, smoldering romance. It is terrible at both and badly cast as well. Roy Scheider is best caustic and as a man of action, a terrible choice for a quiet, introverted psychologist. Meryl Streep as a breathy young ingenue wrapped up in a murder is all wrong. She’s many things, almost all good, but carnal and smoldering ain’t in her bag of tricks. Her performance nears a Saturday Night Live character.

The film is drab and clunky. It has aspirations to be Hitchcockian, but it lacks all of the care.  The romance is preposterous, and the score is sickly sweet. And as a whodunit, the killer can really only be one person.

Both on Amazon Prime.

The Midnight Sky's Heartbreaking Ending, Explained | CBR

George Clooney’s overly meditative, end of the world film makes the initial mistake of not quite telling us what happened to the planet. Something about radiation, and since he is alone in the Arctic, we are alone with him and his flashbacks and perhaps his hallucinations as he dies of cancer. But once you get a sense of the kind of ridiculous, ass-backward people living in the future, the cause of their extinction is of no great moment. They say chickens are so stupid they’ll drown in the rain. That’s us forty years hence.

But Clooney has one last task before he perishes.  He must get word to an incoming space vessel from Jupiter that the world has gone to pieces.  They have been on a two year mission and soon, they will be “in range” and Clooney can tell them, “Go back to the habitable moon near Jupiter.  Great danger here.”

This film is set in 2049. 

Now, imagine I am Peter Finch.  I want you all to stop reading, and go Google, “How long does it take to send a message to jupiter”. 

Result:  “approximately 35 minutes.  Radio waves travelling at 300,000 km/second would take approximately 35 minutes to reach a satellite orbiting Jupiter depending on alignment, and the same time to travel back to Earth, equaling about 1.2 hours.”

But filmvetter, you might say, the radiation threat just came on so quick there was no time!!!  THERE WAS NO TIME!!!!!!

Nonsense.  When the ship does get “in range” of Clooney and they establish contact, a message is downloaded (ha!!!) from the wife of crew member Kyle Chandler.

In it, she states that she is being evacuated and their sons are sick.

So, this calamity took some time.  Indeed, the opening scene shows continued evacuations and there is a later reference to survivors underground.

I guess in all the panic, however, no one thought, “Hey, let’s send a raven to the incoming ship from the potentially habitable moon off of Jupiter.” It’s like the president was George Costanza and someone yelled, “Fire!”   

It gets worse.

In The Martian, I raved about Matt Damon’s intrepid skills when he was stranded, and I also nit-bitched about the hip slackers on the ground (“the people who work at NASA have a certain blasé “I worked in a Blockbuster and I will never wear a uniform again” mien”)

I owe the NASA staff in The Martian an apology.  They were the cream of the crop compared to this lot.  And while Damon was dexterous and tough, here, the crew presents as a mixture of incurious and frivolous.  When they learn that life on our planet has not only changed, but that the planet is lethal, half of them somberly insist on going to their homes to face certain death. They literally abandon ship.  The other half head off back to Jupiter with a badly damaged vessel minus two critical team members. But all four seem unperturbed. Where is Chuck Heston and “You maniacs! You blew it up!” when you need him?

Oh, and the two who are Jupiter-bound are Captain Daniel Oyewelo and Felicity Jones.  It appears the good captain has been at it with the crew, because she is pregnant with his child!  Another crew member, Tiffany Boone, throws up several times because she has to make her first space walk. And she’s not even the one who is knocked up.

Or is she?

Mind you, this was not a 20 year voyage.

It was two!!!!!!!

(A good friend did note that at least the movie progeny will be something special, as the offspring of a filmic Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.)

Alas, NASA, apparently, becomes the DMV in the future.

Ultimately, the film is not only stupid, it is depressing. In the future, we supplant bravery and common cause and sense with uber-narcissism.

The schmaltzy, arty ending is insufferable.

Adding insult to injury, there’s a crew sing-a-long to Sweet Caroline. 

Oof.

Esquire Theatre

Mank is to the truth of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz what Citizen Kane was to the truth of William Randolph Hearst, which I suppose is fitting. What the film lacks in accuracy, however, it makes up for in the beautifully textured black-and-white photography of David Fincher, the inventive and alluring re-creation of old Hollywood, and the crackling dialogue of Fincher’s own father, Jack, who penned the screenplay. The picture makes much of Mankiewicz’s struggle between his own internal liberal ideals and the fact that he is, in essence, a kept corporate cog, one of a gaggle of screenwriters collected, fed, watered and otherwise maintained by the big studios in the 30s and 40s (see Barton Fink, for a darker rendition).  However, the real Mankiewicz was no liberal, he and Hearst were not nearly so enmeshed and cozy, and neither man cared a whit about the California gubernatorial campaign of progressive Upton Sinclair, which is presented as the cause of their rupture.  It is all hooey.

But boy, does this hooey have some moments.  Jack Fincher never engages in caricature.  Mankiwiecz is not tortured; as brilliantly played by Gary Oldman, he’s comfortable, irresponsible, casually cruel, and it nags at him.  And when his indignation becomes righteous, he does not subdue the opposition with his wit and moral force.  To the contrary, he’s compromised and often grotesque.  And the heavies, in particular Hearst (Charles Dance) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), give as good as they get.  In one scene, Thalberg tries to get Mankiewicz to toe the party line and, like all other studio employees, contribute to Sinclair’s GOP opponent.  Thalberg is both solicitous of Mankiewicz but put-off by his casual, self-serving and spotty high-mindedness, and he sticks it to him.  The scene reminded me of a great one in Good Night and Good Luck, between Edward R. Murrow (David Straitharn) and William Paley (Frank Langella) after the former has just been morally urgent and condescending and Paley reminds him that he is not above constraints:

MURROW

Let’s walk very carefully through these next few moments. The content of what we’re doing is more important than what some guy in Cincinnati…

PALEY
It’s what you’re doing, Ed. Not me.  Not Frank Stanton. You.  “CBS News”, “See It Now” all belong to you, Bill.

MURROW
You wouldn’t know it.

PALEY
What is it you want? Credit?  I never censored a single program. I hold on to affiliates who wanted entertainment from us.  I fight to keep the license with the very same politicians that you are bringing down and I never, never said no to you. Never.

MURROW
I would argue that we have done very well by one another.  I would argue that this network is defined by what the news department has accomplished.  And I would also argue that never saying no is not the same as not censoring.

PALEY

Really? You should teach journalism.  You and Mr. Friendly.  Let me ask you this: why didn’t you correct McCarthy when he said that Alger Hiss was convicted of treason?  He was only convicted of perjury.  You corrected everything else.  Did you not want the appearance of defending a known Communist?

Similarly, the scene where Mankiewicz really sticks it to Hearst is not the crowd-pleasing tell-off a lesser writer would have delivered. In fact, Hearst is nonplussed, a fact that underscores the drunken cowardice of Mankiewicz while Hearst witheringly dispenses with him.

The Finchers’ lack of fealty to the truth is almost Hearst-esque in a “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war” sort of way (also fittingly, Hearst likely never said or wrote any such thing) and as such, its fanciful history is not offensive or overbearing. These are, after all, minor historical figures merely making a movie and imbuing false thoughts and actions to them doesn’t presage some sort of larger “truth” or ideological posture. Still, Orson Welles changed “Hearts” to “Kane.” Fincher probably could have called it “Monk.”

Still, the picture is dazzling to watch, often good fun, a decent companion to the Coen Brothers Hail, Caesar!.

On Netflix.    

BB25D191-021E-46FC-9F3F-E4CB44B5B54C
This film is now on the HBO rotation and I surprised myself when I realized I hadn’t reviewed it. It is an exceptional picture, a crisp and intelligent thriller.

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is an attorney at a prestigious corporate law firm. But he’s no legal eagle. Rather, he’s a “fixer “, a guy who can get you a heads up on an indictment or bail out the son of a big client for a drunk and disorderly. Clayton also happens to be a gambling addict with a host of debts.  This is Clooney’s best role. There’s not a hint of his bankable but often annoying, self-satisfied “you know, I’m acting” grin.

His entire persona aligns with the disappointments of his endeavors. As a fixer, he is anything but glamorous or intrepid. When called to the home of a major corporate client after being oversold by his managing partner, Clayton has to firmly tell the man (who has just fled the scene of a hit-and-run after drinking and likely engaging in infidelity) that his talents are pretty pedestrian — the client needs a good criminal lawyer and Clayton “likes” someone local for the job. When the fuming and underwhelmed client taunts Clayton with, “A miracle worker. That’s Walter on the phone twenty minutes ago. Direct quote, okay, ‘Hang tight, I’m sending you a miracle worker’”, his response is a summation of his self-worth: “Well he misspoke . . . There’s no play here. There’s no angle. There’s no champagne room. I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor. The math on this is simple. The smaller the mess the easier it is for me to clean up.“

Clayton’s game is poker, which, of course it is, because it is the only game where the winner can take your money and humiliate you in the process.  

Still, Clayton maintains a resolute decency and innocence as he is enveloped by a conspiracy involving the law firm’s largest client, its’ ambitious and single-minded general counsel (Tilda Swinton) and the firm’s mercurial wiz litigator (Tom Wilkinson), who  goes off his meds and imperils both the corporation and the firm. Clooney is almost pathetic as he feigns sophistication while asking the firm’s managing partner if, in fact, there is something truly insidious about the corporation. A perfectly cast Sydney Pollack replies, “This is news? This case reeked from day one. Fifteen years in I gotta tell you how we pay the rent?“

This is a legal thriller that more than meets both bars. The story is engrossing and writer-director Tony Gilroy must have spent some time in a modern law firm, because he has the milieu, the patter, and the casual arrogance of the place down cold. Big time law firms are funny places, populated by very smart people who convince themselves they are priests, and damned if they don’t attract their own sort of worshipful congregations.

Nominated for Best Picture in 2007, unfortunately for Gilroy and the film, the same year as No Country for Old Men.

The Way Back (2020 film) - Wikipedia

Look.  I’m not complaining.  I knew what I was getting into when I saw the previews.  Ben Affleck, down and out, drinking beers in the shower, stumbling home from the bar, and then, redemption by way of the call from the old school, “Hey, man, we need a hoops coach.”  All the signs of schmaltz-fest, for which I was totally down.  Also, this movie received an 84% on Rottentomatoes.

While it penetrated the outer-lining of the heart once or twice (though that may have been indigestion), for the most part, this is a bad movie.  Let me count the ways.

*Affleck takes a 1-9 woefully undersized team with no apparent talent and makes them a playoff contender on 1) the pre-existing “motion” offense (he just screams “move” and “set picks”); 2) profanity/appeals to their manhood; 3) a full game, full court press. Come on.

*He has dark secrets that have brought him to rock bottom. We learn about them later, but nowhere near enough.  He just seems like his quiet character in The Town, but he’s not planning a heist.

*His wife, who shares his tragedy, is played by someone who must have said, “Okay, Ben is playing this low-key. I will not be out low-keyed.   I will trump his low-key simmer by being catatonic.”  She succeeds.  Their scenes together are master classes in boredom and diffidence.

*The film is ostensibly about relationships, but not one is established. You have no idea how Affleck ended up with his dead-eyed ex-wife.  The actor who plays his sister could not have been more unlike him.  He establishes one relationship with a player, to whom he says “lead” and ”shoot” and then inexplicably, visits the player’s father, who, straight out of the cliché jar, hates basketball because when he was a star, it did not work out for him.   That scene takes 41 seconds, whereupon Affleck shrugs.

*Affleck does connect a little bit with his algebra teaching assistant coach, who ends up being the worst kind of rat fink, and in the process, reveals the school as heartless and joyless.

*Is the filmic sign of being really down and out drinking beer in the shower? Affleck drinks loads of beer in the shower.  While I’m at it, is beer really the choice of bottom-of-the barrel alcoholics?  It seems like a lot of work.

*The piano music in this picture is as intrusive as a tornado warning. Plink, plink . . . be moved! Be moved!

*His players don’t seem modern. Affleck makes a reference to The White Shadow, which is funny, but it is telling.  These players act as if they came to the court straight from The Disney Channel.

Lastly, and critically, Affleck plays a former high school hoops star yet he in no way, shape or form looks like he ever played hoops, much less was an All-American.  I’m 56 in October and until the pandemic, was still playing hoops every week.  I know what older men in all shapes and sizes who play hoops look like, even if they are not playing basketball but rather, just moving a little and dribbling.  When Affleck gets on the court, he just kind of walks around.  He holds the ball like a cantaloupe.  I do not believe.

 

Emma (2020 film) - Wikipedia

I have seen several Emmas.  I believe this is my favorite, primarily, because this Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the perfect blend of headstrong, spoiled, meddlesome and smart.  Better, when she finally gives in to her desire for Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn, who was totally different as the lovelorn, quiet good guy in Amazon’s excellent Vanity Fair), the timing is spot on, and she and Flynn play very well together.  Best, when they argue, they stand their ground and then in charming fashion, fix a détente that all but they see as love.

Here is a not very good “Badly done” scene, mainly because Johnny Lee Miller just snaps and Romola Garai looks like she hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about.

Here is a terrible “Badly done” scene.  Jeremy Northam is very good, but Gwyneth Paltrow starts at weepy and then just folds.

 

In this film, when Knightly upbraids Emma (I cannot find the scene), she does not crumple in the revelation of her awful behavior.  She’s still pissed and fighting.  Only later, after some time, does she make amends and then, not in a simpering fashion.

Moreover, this a master class in wordless chemistry.

Finally, you cannot do much better than Bill Nighy’s fussy, movingly emotional Mr. Woodhouse, plagued by drafts and daughters who abandon him, and Josh O’Connor (Prince Charles in The Crown) who chews scenery by the fistfuls as Mr. Elton.

Relevant.

On Amazon Prime.