Monday, January 16, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Sundowners" (1960)

"The Sundowners" was a financial flop in the U.S. but made bank in other parts of the world, especially Australia, where it was set and shot. Despite its lack of domestic box office, the film received critical acclaim and an impressive slate of Oscar nominations: best picture, director, screenplay, actress and supporting actress, winning none.

Like a lot of quality of pictures of that era, its reputation has unfortunately waned with the passing of years, to the point it straddles into the "forgotten films" category.

Robert Mitchum was a last-minute replace for an ailing Gary Cooper, reteaming with his "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" co-star, Deborah Kerr, even offering her top billing. They play a husband-and-wife team of sheep drovers wandering the early 20th century outback. The title from the 1952 novel by Jon Clearly refers to people who willingly wander without a home: they pitch their tent wherever the sun goes down.

(I should mention this movie bears no relation to a 1950 one with the same title, a cattle-rustling Western starring Robert Preston.)

Both Kerr and Mitchum employ workable Aussie accents, though Mitchum's has a tinge of the Irish, befitting his portrayal of fiercely independent Paddy Carmody. It's a little unclear if Paddy actually emigrated from Ireland; based on the accent I'd guess he's a first-generation natural born son. He still has a fondness for drinking, fighting, gambling and singing, which apparently every Irish in the history of cinema does.

I've noted before that Mitchum's characters almost always have an aspect of danger about them, but Paddy's no threat to anyone. His tragic flaw is his wanderlust, which compels him to always stay on the plains, driving sheep from here to there, taking seasonal jobs as a shearer or what have you when the cash in the family jelly jar starts to run low again.

After nigh on 20 years of this, though, the life has taken its toll on his wife, Ida. As she often did, Kerr plays a strong-headed, smart redhead who knows just how to deal with rough, gruff men while letting them operate under the delusion they're in charge. Though Paddy is a little less blinkered, occasionally referring to Ida as "boss" in front of other men.

Ida desperately wants to buy a farm and settle down. She's a woman of simple tastes: she desires a big kitchen with a real stove, something solid over their heads and a bit of security for their future. Though there's one terrific wordless scene where Ida is standing next to their wagon, windblown and sunburnt, and gazes enviously upon a woman in fine clothes sitting in a train powdering her nose. Their eyes lock for just a second.

But she's mostly thinking of their son, Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.), who is 15 going on... maybe 13. He's a quiet, respectful lad but is clearly being held back by his pop, who won't even let him ride drover with him, despite having the size and skills. Ida wants him to go to school, learn a trade, meet some girls, and otherwise scoot on down the road toward manhood.

As the story opens Paddy has accepted a commission to drove a large herd of sheep to Cawndilla. Because they only have one old horse they need to pull the wagon, they have to take on another drover with a couple of mounts for himself and Paddy. Conveniently they run into Rupert Venneker, a refined British gentleman played by the great Peter Ustinov. He offers to come along, mostly to escape the clutches of the woman he works for, who clearly would like to convert him from employee to husband.

Rupert is a benevolent but intemperate soul with an air of mystery he enjoys cultivating. Rumor has it he was once a nobleman with lands and a title, disgraced and exiled after some mishap. He himself cops to having once been a cavalryman in Her Majesty's army and an officer of a merchant vessel in the Far East. He's not that old, but seems to have soaked up several lifetimes' worth of world-weariness during his treks. Like Paddy, he prefers to be on the move.

Paddy and Rupert exchange a few tongue-lashings that are understandable given their difference in breeding, but despite appearances the latter is a competent horseman and they make it to Cawndilla, escaping a fast-moving forest fire in the process. They're prepared to part ways, but Ida convinces the men for them all to take jobs working the sheep-shearing season at a big local farm operation.

Rupert later refers to himself as the Carmody's pet, a dyspeptic creature with "a hard shell and a soft underbelly." He even falls in with the local pub owner, a lively widow named Mrs. Firth (Glynis Johns). Rupert repeatedly talks about how he knows one day he's going to break her heart when it's inevitably time to leave again. Until then, they enjoy lively nights together, with Rupert creeping back to the farm around dawn.

But when that fated day does arrive, it's Firth talking c'est la vie while Rupert owns the hangdog pout.

Much of the second half of the movie has to do with money. Ida carefully counts their growing savings, quietly maneuvering to put a down payment on a lovely farm they passed at the beginning of their journey. Paddy mostly plays along, as long as he can go into town with the boys every now and then to drink, sing old Irish ditties and lose a little money at "two-up," a popular coin-flipping game. He doesn't know about the farm plan, but he's cagey enough to figure out she's up to something.

Paddy gets roped into a shearing contest against another farm crew, and finds himself put up against a doddering 80-something fellow. But the movie goes sideways from expectations, as the strapping Paddy is laid low by the tireless oldster. Still, no one blames him for the loss and life goes on. In some ways this sequence best encapsulates the film's theme, which is that luck changes but relationships endure.

At one point Paddy has a massive winning streak at two-up, and not only do they have enough cash for the farm he also wins a thoroughbred racing horse. Soon Sean is recruited as jockey and they're winning races and more dough. But something's got to give, and it does.

Gorgeously directed by Fred Zinnemann with wonderful cinematography by Jack Hildyard, "The Sundowners" is part travelogue exposing the Australian outback, part adventure story and part family dramaturgy. Isobel Lennart provided the screenplay adaptation, and it's probably her best-remembered work apart from "Funny Girl." (For which, oddly, she did not receive an Oscar nod.)

It's an old-fashioned story with some modestly modernistic aspects, such as a fairly frank attitude toward sex for 1960. Kerr disrobes for a nighttime scene with her figure starkly outlined behind a backlit negligee, as Paddy talks admiringly of her curves. And it would be hard to suppose exactly what else Rupert would be up to during his nightly sojourns into Cawndilla.

The film ends on an ambiguous note, with the Carmodys losing their entire stake but cementing their love for each other, with Rupert as the add-on uncle/mate/sheepdog. Some things can't be counted, only embraced.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Video review: "The Girl on the Train"

The most important aspect of a potboiler movie is that the pot has to keep boiling, gaining in intensity rather than losing it. “The Girl on the Train,” despite having some strong story elements and a very good performance by Emily Blunt, loses steam to the point the plot congeals.

Blunt plays Rachel, a woman who’s seemingly lost everything -- her career, her marriage, her sobriety, her hopes of having a baby. She spends her days in an alcoholic stupor, riding the train into the city for the job she lost a while ago. This allows her to glide past her old house, where her ex-husband (Justin Theroux) has remarried to the woman he was cheating on her with, and they’ve just had a gorgeous baby girl.

While she’s pummeling herself with this vision of what could have been, Rachel also becomes curious about another couple living a couple of doors down (Haley Bennett and Luke Evans), who tend to have a very, um… vigorous romantic life, which they engage in without apparent regard to the trains passing by their very unobstructed windows.

When this woman goes missing, Rachel becomes a prime suspect, since she had one of her frequent blackouts on that day and woke up confused and bloody (not hers). Nonetheless she undertakes her own amateur investigation, befriending the grieving husband and signing up for therapy sessions with their shrink.

Slowly, she starts to emerge from her self-induced fog -- just as the dangers grow to confront her.

Based on the novel by Paula Hawkins (unread by me), “The Girl on the Train” loses momentum as it goes rather than gaining it. Director Tate Taylor and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson give us their own mediocre version of “Gone Girl,” which accomplished almost everything this film does not.

It’s too bad Blunt’s haunting performance got wasted with such inept plotting.

Bonus features are pretty good. They include deleted and extended scenes, a couple of making-of documentaries and a feature-length commentary track with director Taylor.



Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review: "Patriots Day"

The Boston Marathon bombing was less than four years ago, but already it seems a deeply embedded piece of our national lore, like a piece of shrapnel in our collective soul. Two Chechen brothers with radical Islamist sympathies planted a pair of improvised bombs along the race route, killing three people, including a child, and injuring hundreds of others.

The sight of Boylston Street spattered with blood and limbs is not something any of us should soon forget -- or want to.

“Patriots Day” is a painstaking recreation of that fateful day, from the early morning hours leading up to the attack to the time the Tsarnaev brothers were captured and killed. It takes the form of a police procedural, following parallel paths of the domestic terrorists and the army of law enforcement chasing them.

Director Peter Berg, who co-wrote the script with Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer, based on the book “Boston Strong” by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge, has delivered an unrelentingly grim film that somehow leaves us with a sense of hope and community. It takes pains not to depict the perpetrators as soulless vessels, the victims as mere statistics or the cops as faceless automatons.

There are many powerful images and moments that will linger for me. Such as a young bride waking up after the blast, seeing that both her and her husband’s legs have been torn to pieces, and choosing to bind up his wounds before her own. Or a father, his body similarly shredded, trying to prevent a rescue worker from whisking his toddler son to safety.

Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon and J. K. Simmons play the main roles as police officers on the chase, and are all resolute and effective. Wahlberg plays Boston Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders, while John Goodman is Police Commissioner Ed Davis. Bacon plays the FBI guy, Richard DesLauriers, brought in to lead the investigation, and Simmons is Jeffrey Pugliese, the sergeant in nearby Watertown who become involved when the chase led to his sleepy burg.

It’s a fine and realistic portrait of dedicated men with strong personalities trying to do an important job, and occasionally getting into beefs with each other. The feds-versus-locals is a common theme in crime stories, and we also get to see how politics plays into events like these, with Michael Beach as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, pushing for more information to be released to the public.

Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze play Tsarnaev brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan. It’s essentially an abusive relationship, with the older married Tamerlan constantly bullying his 19-year-old brother, a seemingly normal college student who’d probably be spending his days smoking weed and cutting classes if not for his radicalized sibling’s harassment.

Like the best historical reenactments, I learned things about a wildly publicized event that I hadn’t previously known. Like the Tsarnaevs kidnapping a young Chinese-American businessman (Jimmy O. Yang) and forcing him to ride around with them in his brand-new SUV for hours. Or the assassination of an MIT cop sitting in his vehicle. Or the extent of the firefight they engaged in with Watertown cops, complete with pipe bombs and vehicles rocketed into the air.

Wahlberg is the biggest star in the movie, but there’s no real main character in this ensemble cast. His police sergeant is an amalgam of several different officers, which I might normally find objectionable but I think works narratively here.

This way the audience can experience a continuous face from the scene of the bombing to the behind-the-scenes forensic investigation that quickly pinpointed the Tsarnaevs to the actual manhunt. He serves as the locus of the story, a source of constancy amid a tumult of faces and details.

His character has a bum knee that he aggravates right before the marathon, so he spends the whole movie hobbling around. The fact that he’s already wounded on the outside gives him a connection to the victims we comprehend at a visceral level.

“Patriots Day” is a hard movie to watch, but ultimately an extremely rewarding one. It’s only at their worst that people show us their best.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Review: "Silence"

Thirty years ago Martin Scorsese read the historical novel “Silence” by Shūsaku Endō and resolved to make a movie from it. Now it has finally arrived, and in many ways it represents the culmination of the great filmmaker’s cinematic representation of his own struggles with faith and religion.

These are not the same thing, and it is this dichotomy that “Silence” explores over a languid -- but never for a moment dull -- 161 minutes.

It is the semi-fictionalized tale of feudal Japan in the 1600s, when Christianity quietly spread over the island despite the brutal attempts by the ruling hierarchy to suppress it. This took the form of horrifying torture, beheadings, peasants being bound and burned alive if they refused to renounce their faith by stamping on a crude representation of Jesus.

The worst agonies were often left to the Western priests who led these hidden flocks. Early on we see several monks bound to crosses while steaming liquid from volcanic hot springs is drizzled over their bare flesh. No doubt the worst device was anazuri, a ritual in which a person was hung upside down over a pit, with a single cut behind the ear to slowly leach the life out of them drip by drip, even as the loss of blood prevents them from passing out.

The story begins with a pair of young Portuguese priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), who learn from their superior (Ciarán Hinds) that their beloved teacher committed apostasy while spreading the faith in Japan. Not believing what they consider a slander against Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), they resolve to undertake his mission for themselves and find him, if he still lives.

They are smuggled across the ocean with the help of Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a pitiable drunk who they suspect of once having been a Christian himself, though he denies it. They wind up in a tiny village and soon begin ministering to a small underground of the faithful, which slowly grows as word spreads of the return of priests to Japan.

Eventually their faith is tested in ways I won’t give away, other than to say they must face the choice of whether it is possible to best serve the lessons of Christ by betraying his church.

The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is simply marvelous, and reminded me very much of Roland Joffe’s “The Mission.” The largely Japanese cast is also wonderful, particularly Shinya Tsukamoto as a simple farmer named Mokichi whose bravery and belief puts the priests’ own to shame, and Issey Ogata as the aging Inquisitor, who turns out to be much cleverer and more subtle than his cruel methods would suggest.

Scorsese, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks, gives us a quietly powerful and evenhanded look at how people struggle with their relationship to God in the direst circumstances. The breathtaking beauty of the land is contrasted with the grubby aspect of the common folk, who clutch little rough-hewn crosses in hands blackened by toil, their teeth rotting out of their heads even as their hearts burst with the light of faith.

If you thought Garfield was mesmerizing as a man struggling to adhere to his religious beliefs in “Hacksaw Ridge,” then his performance in this film goes many steps further.

I have no doubt that many people will struggle to watch a film like “Silence.” Most likely, they’ll simply stay away. The studio’s decision to virtually hide the movie from audiences and critics is baffling given its potential during the awards season. But I get the sense that Scorsese undertook this cinematic endeavor for other rewards.

Review: "Live By Night"

“Live By Night” is Ben Affleck’s conscious attempt to recreate the look and feel of an Old Hollywood crime drama with a modern frosting of sex and violence. It’s an overstuffed, messy narrative filled with a lot of terrific actors and strong scenes lacking connective tissue.

This movie is Full Boat Affleck: in addition to starring as a Boston Irish mobster transplanted to Tampa Bay to run their Prohibition Era operations, he also directs, produces and adapted the novel by Dennis Lehane.

All I can say is Affleck certainly knows how to shoot himself as a director, and how to shoot himself in the foot as a screenwriter.

Cary Grant himself would have to admit how dapper Affleck looks in this movie, his dark, chiseled features set off by 1920s costumes and backdrops. Robert Richardson’s photography recalls the best of the film noir tradition while employing diffuse colors and slanted light.

The story is… the sort of thing you get trying to cram a 400-page book into a two-hour movie. Though I haven’t read Lehane’s book, from what I’ve gathered it seems Affleck tried to follow the novel pretty closely, ejecting only a brief sojourn to Cuba. He would have done better to scale down the sheer number of secondary characters and tertiary plot lines.

Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston police captain who went bad and became a thief. He runs into trouble when he romances the moll (Sienna Miller) of his boss, a pugnacious fellow named Albert White (Robert Glenister). A few hops and skips of the plot later, and after a stint in prison, Joe finds himself sent down to Ybor City, Fla., to take over the illicit liquor operations of his new Italian mob masters.

Joe and his partner, Dion (an excellent Chris Messina), soon put the locals on notice that there’s a new boss in town, offing some low-level hicks and even befriending the local sheriff (Chris Cooper), a deeply religious man who compartmentalizes his faith with the desire to keep the peace. Joe falls for a vivacious Cuban expat, Graciella (Zoe Saldana), and soon it seems like his snake-eyes luck is starting to change.

But challenges always abound, including pushback from a vicious local leader of the Klan (Matthew Maher), who just happens to be the sheriff’s kin. And the Italians up north aren’t satisfied that the booze business is booming, but want Joe to branch out into gambling, prostitution, drugs, etc. That means stepping on more toes in his new beachside paradise.

Elle Fanning plays the sheriff’s daughter, who gets used up in a bad way when she tries to make a go in showbiz, and returns to town preaching about the evils of men like Joe in a series of burgeoning tent revivals. One of the film’s main problems is that even though his character seems to be at the center of Joe’s thicket of problems, Chris Cooper doesn’t actually get a lot of screen time to flesh out his conflict.

We pretty much know where all this is heading, so it’s just a matter of drinking in the atmosphere and encounters before the movie winds up where it will. Lehane’s work tends to start in tragedy, then wander around a bit before returning home.

There are a lot of great puzzle pieces in “Live By Night,” but it feels like there’s too many and they don’t always fit together.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Video review: "The Accountant"

“The Accountant” is an entertaining film, but it could have been much more. It’s about a math whiz who has autism and has turned into some sort of “super spy CPA” type who cooks the books and then kills the bad guys. My best take on it is that star Ben Affleck was jealous of his buddy Matt Damon’s two most pivotal roles, Jason Bourne and Will Hunting, and decided to combine them into one movie.

The result is part character study, part romance, and a lot spy action that gradually devolves into more or a less comedy, with our hero offing villains and then tossing off quips. It doesn’t really all fit together, but there are some nice pieces to the equation.

Christian Wolff was a kid whose genius and social disability were both plain to see. Raised by a stern military dad and beset with tragedy, he’s turned into this mystery figure who runs a one-man accounting shop in a crummy strip mall, doing taxes for working class folks. On the side, though, he runs the numbers for all sorts of international bad guys, from the mafia to drug cartels.

On the hunt is Treasury agent Ray King (J.K. Simmons), who wants to bust the legendary shadow man before he’s forced to hang up his badge in a few months. Jeffrey Tambor plays another father figure, who schooled Christian on accounting while they were in prison together.

Providing the cute-n-spunky ingredient is Anna Kendrick as Dana, a junior accountant at a company that makes robotic limbs. She thinks she’s uncovered some malfeasance the CEO (John Lithgow) doesn’t know about, so Christian is brought in to work his magic. Soon the young CPAs are auditing each other’s bedsheets.

From there, things get weirder and weirder, with black ops types showing up (Jon Bernthal among them) to make dark threats and stage the deaths of minor characters. Director Gavin O’Connor and screenwriter Bill Dubuque let things slide further and further afield from the somber first half, until the movie virtually becomes a laugh riot -- sometimes intentional, sometimes not.

“The Accountant” isn’t a bad movie, it just forgets itself. In trying too hard to be both Jason and Will, Christian wanders into absurdity. It’s an entertaining train wreck, but still a mess.

Bonus features are so-so, and are limited to three making-of documentary shorts: “Inside the Man,” “Behavior Science” and “The Accountant in Action.”



Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Review: "A Monster Calls"

It’s often said that there’s nothing in life more unfair than a parent burying a child. But a child saying goodbye to their mom or dad is also one of the most traumatic things we can go through. For most of us it happens when we’re in middle age, and in some ways it marks the final waypoint in the passage to full adulthood.

But what about when we’re still kids ourselves? “A Monster Calls” tells the harrowing story of a young British boy whose mother is dying.

No one says this outright, but we sense the final destination from the very beginning. His mother, lovingly played by Felicity Jones, puts on the bravest of faces and smiles and says everything is going to be alright, because that is what a parent who loves their kid does.

But our first instinct, to shield them from pain, is not always the best one. Conor O’Malley senses in his heart what his brain will not allow. His terror manifests itself in a fearsome vision that appears to him nightly at seven minutes past midnight: A vaguely man-shaped creature formed from the branches and leaves of a yew tree, threatening to eat him.

It says Conor can escape this fate if he listens to three true stories by the creature, and then tells one himself. But if he lies -- to the monster, and to himself -- he will be gobbled and gone.

The tree beast is the result of excellent CGI animation and the superlative voice and expressions of Liam Neeson. A mix of fury and harsh comfort, he takes role of the father figure Conor is missing. Dad, played by Toby Kebbell, is alive but living in America; emotionally, he’s even further away.

Lewis MacDougall plays Conor, and this is truly one of the great child acting performances of my lifetime. (Think Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.”) He embodies the full range of Conor’s emotions, including a lot of negative ones involving anger and resentment. Many adult performers struggle to craft a character as three-dimensional as this.

Patrick Ness wrote the screenplay based on his own book, which was inspired by the idea of another writer who died before she could bring it to fruition. J.A. Bayona, who previously directed the disaster drama “The Impossible,” directs with humility and passion.

The filmmakers shine by not trying to force the audience into this emotional box or that one, but letting them feel the full weight of conflicting feelings washing over them just as Conor does.

The monster’s three stories are related in gorgeous animation. At first they seem like simple fairy tales, involving princes, witches and the like, but as time goes on the creature reveals deeper layers of meaning. Sigourney Weaver plays Conor’s grandmother, a brittle woman who becomes the boy’s chief antagonist (other than the yew monster) during his mother’s slow march toward death.

Since I saw “A Monster Calls” more than a month ago, I’ve been struggling with the decision of whether or not it’s an appropriate film for kids. Given the parable-like story construction and “cartoon” character, I worried that people would mistake this as a “children’s movie.” Certainly it is not that.

But I do think older children might do well to see this film, to help them deal with loss or prepare them for the possibility of it. There is very grown-up stuff here, like the push-and-pull of family members who don’t want to lose their loved one, but reach a point where they just want the suffering -- theirs and ours -- to cease.

As the film year has ended and another begins, I’ve been asked to comment on whether there’s any dominant cinematic theme I’ve noticed for 2016. Generally I consider this a dangerous game, since movies are conceived and executed so far in advance of when they come out that it mostly becomes an exercise in people projecting their own hopes and fears onto works of art.

But the notions of mourning and regret are transparently there to see in many of my favorite films of the year, such as “Manchester by the Sea” and “Hell or High Water.” An exploration of that anguish that comes before death, “A Monster Calls” belongs on that list, both for its themes and its tremendous quality.