Monday, January 15, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Ride the High Country" (1962)

"Pardner, do you know what's on the back of a poor man when he dies? The clothes of pride. And they're not a bit warmer to him dead than they were when he was alive. Is that all you want, Steve?"

"All I want is to enter my house justified."

In writing not long ago about cowboy actor Randolph Scott's late-in-life career resurgence, I mentioned that he and Joel McCrea made one final Western together before retiring from the big screen. That's not strictly true, as McCrea did make a handful of other film appearances after 1962's "Ride the High Country," though neither the films or his turns in them were notable.

"Ride," which is also widely regarded as director Sam Peckinpah's first important film, is better described as the coda on McCrea's long, and largely unappreciated, career. It did in fact mark Scott's last time on the big screen.

A low-budget film that barely made a cultural ripple at the time of its release -- it was actually the bottom half of a double bill with the Viking actioner "The Tartars" -- "Ride" has continued to grow in estimation over the years to the point of being heralded by many as a major film the helps mark the close of Hollywood's Golden Age.

Set in the early years of the 20th century, the two actors play aged ex-lawmen yearning to recapture something of their glory days. Meeting by happenstance, they join forces to guard a shipment of gold dust from a mining town back to the city. Though they don't set out with the intention of the proverbial "one last job," it inevitably becomes that.

The amount they're to be entrusted with is initially described as a quarter of a million dollars, later amended to one-tenth that upon the signing of the contract with the bank, and finally just a hair over $11,000 when they actually take possession. This is significant to Steve Judd (McCrea) only as a matter of personal pride, a measure of how much credit is left in the reputation of a famous relic like himself.

The sum is more important for Gil Westrum (Scott), as he intends to steal the gold rather than turn it into the bank. He spends much of the movie trying to enlist Steve to join the scheme, indirectly through little hints and suggestions. But he's prepared to betray his friend if needs be. His hotheaded young sidekick, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), serves as his backup and insurance.

During one of their conversations on the trail, Gil does succeed in getting Steve to admit that if men like themselves were justly compensated for their work, he figures he would be due $1,000 for every time he's been shot. (Paying out four times, in his case). Instead, Steve has little to show beyond a decent horse, a fancy gun rig and frayed shirt cuffs.

For their trouble, the three men are being paid $40 a day -- half for Steve, $10 each for his two recruits -- which works out to a little more than $1,000 in today's dollars. So the temptation to steal $250,000, or even $11,000, is enormous.

Steve had spent the previous years working in brothels and bars, while Gil sunk even lower, portraying himself as "the Oklahoma kid," a fictional notorious gunman at carnivals and such. Wearing a fake mustache and ostentatious outfit, he bets rubberneckers 10 cents apiece that he can outshoot them at a game of spinning targets. Even then he has to rig the odds, loading his pistol with buckshot cartridges to ensure a hit.

Along the way to Coarse Gold, the squalid little mining town, they pick up a straggler in Elsa (Mariette Hartley), a young girl who lives alone with her fire-and-brimstone father (R. G. Armstrong). She can't stand the lonely life and her father's abuse, so she sneaks off to join the strangers.

She's clearly attracted to Heck, and vice-versa, but when he nearly forces himself upon her -- only being pulled off by the two older men -- Elsa resolves to continue her original plan of marrying Billy Hammond (James Drury), a man she courted who joined the gold rush.

Unfortunately, Billy has four brothers, and it soon becomes apparent that the Hammonds have a rather... socialist view when it comes to marriage and sexual relations. As in, "share and share alike." Billy seems unbothered by this, so long as he gets first dibs on Elsa's favors.

Needless to say, she's not enamored of the notion of becoming the family sex slave. The marriage goes through in a rambunctious, whiskey-soaked ceremony at the Coarse Gold saloon, but Gil, Steve and Heck rescue Elsa from the Hammonds' clutches. An inquest is called, and Gil threatens the town judge (Edgar Buchanan) to testify that he's not legally empowered to perform weddings. They make off with Elsa, leading to a fatal showdown with the Hammond boys.

The Hammonds make quite an impression as villains, combining a level of genuine malevolence with bumpkin-esque comedic relief. That's helped by the presence of Peckinpah favorite Warren Oates as Henry, the dimmest of the bunch. Oates furrows his brows in a vain attempt to understand basic societal conventions like taking baths or not shtupping your sister-in-law. And, for some strange reason, birds are attracted to Henry, constantly flocking about him or even perching on his shoulder.

The other brothers are Elder (John Anderson), whose name spells out his role; barely-past-boyhood Jimmy (John Davis Chandler); and stoic Sylvus, played by quintessential "that guy" actor L. Q. Jones.

Interesting aside on Jones: his given name was Justus E. McQueen, but in his first movie, "Battle Cry," he was cast as a character named L. Q. Jones, and he liked the moniker so much he used it the rest of his career, which included a lot of Peckinpah films. Another one for the May Wynn files.

I enjoyed "Ride the High Country," though it's hard to argue it up further than being a well-done B-movie Western oater. The central dynamic is Scott and McCrea as hard men who've absorbed a lifetime of being downtrodden and disregarded. Regret is at the core of every scene in the movie, such as when Gil inquires after Steve's one-time, long-ago chance at love and family.

They both still look the part of genuine cowboys, though McCrea sports a bit of a paunch, and his grey hairs are carefully combed over the thin spots. He carries himself with a sense of both shame and pride, mournful for past misdeeds -- including a stint on the wrong side of the law -- while retaining his certainty that it's not usually hard to tell right from wrong.

Scott's character is a little underdeveloped by comparison, failing to struggle much with any kind of moral quandary about stealing the gold. It's only after Steve catches them in the act that Gil seems to have a moment of self-reflection and doubt.

As with most of Peckinpah's work, the women don't fare so well. Elsa comes across as a naive temptress, repeatedly presenting herself to men for their attention and then becoming defensive when they respond too enthusiastically. Given today's watershed moment of awareness about sexual harassment and abuse, her repeated rape peril is titanically disturbing.

Although N. B. Stone Jr., is credited with the screenplay, according to most lore Peckinpah himself and William S. Roberts actually wrote it.

Though I think it's a trifle overrated, "Ride the High Country" is still a worthy conveyance for two Western stars to ride off into their well-deserved sunset.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Video review: "Blade Runner 2049"

“Blade Runner 2049” was my favorite film of 2014, mostly because “Blade Runner” is one of my most cherished movies ever, and I did not expect any sequel to do it justice. So I was gobsmacked to encounter a film that is a completely seamless revisit to the dystopian future envisioned by author Philip K. Dick, now 30 years further down a dark road.

Two things usually doom sequels: being too bold, or not bold enough. Most go the latter way, simply trying to reboot all the elements that made the first movie a success, without really moving the ball downfield from a storytelling example. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a good recent example, as it’s basically a remake of “A New Hope.”

When other filmmakers take over a franchise, they often want to put their own stamp on it, coming up with crazy concoctions that don’t mesh with the original material. This was the danger with “Blade Runner 2049,” with Denis Villeneuve taking over the director’s chair from Ridley Scott.

And yet the new movie looks, feels and sounds very much like the child of “Blade Runner.” Once again, it’s set in a world where bioengineered “replicants” serve as the virtual slaves of an uncaring human populous. Ryan Gosling plays K, a replicant Los Angeles police detective who’s really little more than a paid assassin of other “skin jobs” like himself who have wandered off the plantation.

He uncovers a plot that takes him right up to the very top of the corridors of power, where mega-tycoon Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) wants to launch the replicant trade to off-world markets. His very able assistant, Luv (an arresting Sylvia Hoeks), is put onto the case.

Harrison Ford returns as Deckard, the iconic blade runner from the first film, whom K encounters about halfway through in a clash of generations that’s every bit as electric as we’d hoped.

Ana de Armas plays Joi, K’s holographic “wife.” Manufactured by Niander’s omnipresent corporation, we suspect that Joi is merely another construct designed to keep the replicant workforce docile. But their love seems very real, indeed.

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins – his long-delayed Academy Award seems finally assured – “Blade Runner 2049” is a beautiful, disturbing look into a future that at times seems all too plausible.

Video bonus features are quite expansive, with a decent amount of goodies on the DVD version and even more for the Blu-ray combo pack.

The DVD includes six making-of mini-documentaries that combine together to form “Blade Runner 101.” These include “Blade Runners,” “The Replicant Evolution,” “The Rise of Wallace Corp,” “Welcome to 2049,” “Joi” and “Within the Skies.”

Upgrade to the Blu-ray, and you add another special feature, “Designing the World of Blade Runner 2049.”

Most intriguing are three prologue pieces that explore the world between 2019, when the original “Blade Runner” was set, and the new one we see. They are “2022: Black Out,” “2036: Nexus Dawn” and “2048: Nowhere to Run.”



Thursday, January 11, 2018

Review: "Phantom Thread"

I sincerely hope Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't carry through with his pledge to make "Phantom Thread" his final screen appearance, for the simple reason that I wouldn't want him to go out on such a sour note.

The esteemed actor has essentially been semi-retired for the last two decades, only appearing in a movie once every few years -- his last was five years ago, and won him an unprecedented third Oscar for Best Actor. It seems strange to call it a career now at the height of his powers, when he can pick and choose his projects. But Day-Lewis has publicly stated that playing in this film left him "overwhelmed by a sense of sadness."

Now that I've seen it, I know how he feels.

Day-Lewis' performance is a technical marvel as always, playing renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock in 1950s London. But writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted a character who is defined by his inability to relate to others. He seems impervious to joy. He has cut down his world to only the very narrow spaces in which he is in absolute control, and rages against any intrusions into that sphere.

Simply put, it's not someone you really want to watch over the course of a 140-minute movie.

Now, you can certainly have characters who are unlikable, but still compelling. A prime example: Daniel Plainview, the evil tycoon of the last Anderson/Day-Lewis collaboration, "There Will Be Blood."

But Reynolds is so off-putting, so veiled in his innermost workings, that an entire movie about him is a suffocating experience. It's like being locked away with your hateful uncle, and you have to pretend to like him.

The most interesting character is the least developed one: Vicky Krieps as Alma Elson, a French waitress essentially adopts one day after spotting her in a country inn one day. She's awkward, sincere, self-possessed, not especially beautiful. He's at least 30 years older than her, yet she's flattered by his complete attention toward her... for now.

On their first date he takes her home and has Alma model for him. Reynold's icy, mysterious sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), appears out of nowhere and wordlessly assists him as he takes Alma's measurements. It's clear this dynamic has played out before with other young women: the artist, the muse who becomes a prisoner, the jailer.

"You have no breasts," Reynolds comments, without apparent cruelty or pity. Cyril seems nicer at first: "You have the perfect proportions,"she coos, to Alma's delight. "He likes a little belly."

Without any apparent discussion, Alma joins their household, becoming some combination of lover and employee. During the day, a small army of old women seamstresses appear to work on Reynolds' magnificent creations. When the three are alone, though, Alma's transgressions soon become bothersome, for such horrible acts as buttering her toast too loudly.

Things go from there. We cheer for Alma's little defiances and rebellions, but she soon knuckles under again. We pity her for awhile, then become disgusted with her when she acquiesces time and again.

Anderson fails to answer the basic question that should drive this movie: What does Alma see in Reynolds? His motivations are plain: he's an emotional renter, not a buyer, using the people around him in service to his true passion of making beautiful things. She remains a mystery, however -- even after taking matters into her own hand in a way that we do not expect, or grasp.

It's a visually splendid movie, and as you might expect the clothes are magnificent to witness. Day-Lewis cuts an interesting figure himself: thin to the point of spindly, silver hair swept back in a V-shaped crown, perpetually hunched over and gazing like a bird of prey.

Reynolds is a shell of a man who does not want anyone to be close to him, yet craves constant attention. He doesn't want lovers; he needs attendants. "I do not like to be turned away from," he complains.

I was vexed when the studio refused to show "Phantom Thread" to most critics in advance of the awards cycle. At first I thought it was a ploy to stoke fervor for the film. Now it seems more an effort to dress up disappointment.

What a tiresome finale for one of the finest actors of the modern age.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Review: "The Commuter"

Just a few quick thoughts; Andrew Carr is handling the main review over at The Film Yap, so please head there to check it out.

On the surface, "The Commuter" is a standard issue enclosed-space action/thriller in the vein of "Die Hard," "Speed" and countless imitators. Using the nomenclature that was popular awhile back, this movie would constitute the "Die Hard on a Train" iteration.

What makes it more interesting is the subtext beneath the fisticuffs and nail-biter sequences. The characters talk constantly about "doing the right thing" and how it rarely benefits the do-gooder. The hero is a classic everyman who wanders into a moral quandary through a momentary temptation, and has to spend the rest of the movie climbing out.

The movie has a sense of glum resignation tempered by notions about the bedrock decency of the masses. But their default mode is to expect disappointment.

It's a totem for our times: the rich, the powerful, the corrupt conspire to coerce regular folks into doing their bidding, who usually must go along. And they would've gotten away with it this time, too, if it weren't for this meddling oldster.

Liam Neeson returns for another variation on his Kick-Ass Geezer routine, which has been his bread-and-butter for a decade now. Reportedly Neeson himself has grown tired of such roles and has vowed "The Commuter" will be the last of its ilk.

All I'll say he's still an engaging, energetic presence and I'd personally be happy to keep watching him do this sort of thing until he needs a walker, provided he mixes it up with some dramatic or romantic roles.

The set-up is simple: Michael MacCauley is an Irish-born ex-cop turned insurance salesman. He and his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) live hand-to-mouth and are trying to figure out how to pay for their son's college education.

(Or so they say: their huge, luxurious house  in the New York City exurbs and BMW crossover would suggest otherwise. Hollywood continues to flail at depicting middle-income families.)

He suddenly gets laid off, seemingly for no reason, and Michael knows what that means for a 60-year-old in a competitive job market. Interestingly, Michael explicitly mentions his age several times in the film; usually mainstream movies are much more circumspect about the age of their characters, especially older ones.

After meeting his cop ex-partner (Patrick Wilson) to drown his sorrow in a few beers and bumping into an old precinct rival (Sam Neill) who's recently made captain, Michael boards his normal commuter train to Tarrytown. He's confronted by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who, under the ruse of a hypothetical social experiment, offers Michael $100,000 in cash if he can identify a person onboard the train who "doesn't belong there."

That's it. The only proviso is that he doesn't know what will happen to the person, known only by the pseudonym of Prim, but we can probably guess it won't be anything good.

Things go from there with the expected twists and surprises. Michael breaks the rules set forth, and bad things happen. People on board the train who would seem to be allies turn out to be in cahoots with the evildoers, others who seem strange or threatening are actually something else, and so on. I'm not giving anything away in saying that this is the sort of movie where the hero comes to the realization that he's not just a pawn, but the patsy.

The background players are a nice mix of personalities, from the haughty stockbroker to the nervous goth teenager. The cast includes Jonathan Banks, Killian Scott, Shazad Latif, Andy Nyman, Clara Lago, Rolland Møller, Florence Pugh, Ella-Rae Smith and Colin McFarlane.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who made the effective seaborne thriller "The Shallows," from a script by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle, "The Commuter" does all the things we expect, and a few things we don't.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Video review: "IT"

“IT” was scary, moody and effective. It was also overlong and troubled by some bad pacing. Not to mention the overreliance on “boo gotcha!” moments. Those work fine the first few times. But the 23rd, not so much.

I haven’t read the book by Stephen King or seen the 1990s television miniseries, which I think helped my viewing experience since I didn’t have anything to compare it to. For those as innocent of the story as me, it’s about a gaggle of kids -- 13 in the movie, 11 in the book -- who battle Pennywise, the evil clown they refer to simply as “it.”

In the convoluted world that only exists in books and onscreen, these children are left to battle the dread spirit on their own without any meaningful assistance from adults in their seemingly normal town of Derry, Maine.  Those grownups that do wander into the tale are unhelpful at best or actively malevolent in all likelihood.

Bill Skarsgård gives a terrific performance, supplemented by dramatic makeup effects that make Pennywise resemble Larry from the Three Stooges after a spin through Timothy Leary’s medicine cabinet. Pennywise speaks in a disturbing mix of childish sing-song and guttural croaks.

Kids in Derry start turning up missing in astonishing numbers, and the local sheriff is too busy drinking or abusing his son, local bully Henry (Nicholas Hamilton), to do anything about it. So it’s left to the club of misfit students who call themselves the Losers to investigate.

The first half of the movie is a little slow, but once the battle with Pennywise is joined it picks up pace and energy. After grossing nearly $700 million worldwide, the sequel to “IT” -- which picks up a few decades later when the kids are adults -- is an absolute certainty. Which maybe gives you a clue as to Pennywise’s ultimate fate at the end of this film.

Video bonus features are a mite light considering how much scratch the movie made at theaters. Both the DVD and Blu-ray editions come with 11 deleted or extended scenes; “Pennywise Lives!”, a look at Skarsgård’s transformation; “The Losers’ Club,” a behind-the-scenes look at how the teen stars bonded during production; and “Author of Fear,” a look at King’s creation and its cinematic adaptation.



Monday, January 1, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Sergeant Rutledge" (1960)

"Said the private to the sergeant, 'Tell me, Sergeant, if you can,
Did you ever see a mountain come a-walking like a man?'
Said the sergeant to the private, 'You're a rookie, ain't you though?
Or else you'd be a-recognizing Captain Buffalo.'"
A few years before he made "Cheyenne Autumn," which was widely perceived as his apology to Native Americans for their barbaric portrayal in his films, director John Ford made another movie that attempted to nudge the Western genre a little closer toward modern sensibilities -- this time on America's treatment of African-Americans.

Released a month before the book "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published and two years before its iconic cinematic adaptation, "Sergeant Rutledge" has surprisingly similar themes and storytelling structure.

It's about a black U.S. Cavalry sergeant played by Woody Strode who is accused of raping and killing a young white girl. The accusations rile up the community in and around the military fort, many of whose members demand an immediate lynching.

As with "Mockingbird," the story is framed around a heroic white protagonist defending him at trial -- in this case Jeffrey Hunter as Lt. Tom Cantrell. All of the film's posters and other publicity materials featured Hunter with Strode in a secondary role, with Constance Towers as Cantrell's love interest often overshadowing the titular character.

It's a well-meaning film that's often a bit stiff and predictable. Rutledge's innocence is never really in doubt, and his exoneration arrives in the last minutes in a twist so out of left field it registers as a deus ex machina resolution.

Still, "Rutledge" actually bests "Mockingbird" in one regard in that 1st Sergeant Braxton Rutledge manages to stand on his own as a flesh-and-blood character, whereas Tom Robinson remains little more than a vessel for racial injustice, a conveyance mechanism for allaying white guilt.

"Rutledge" represents the pinnacle of Strode's unlikely acting career, which was largely defined by his herculean physique and stoic presence. For those who don't know, he was an Olympic decathlete, starred on the same UCLA Bruins football team with Jackie Robinson and was one of the two first black NFL players.

His arresting appearance lent him to many villainous roles -- including famously fighting Tarzan on three occasions. He and Ford remained personally very close from the 1950s onward, and Strode even served as Ford's caretaker during the great director's final years, sleeping for months at a time on his floor.

(An anecdote that only underscores uncomfortable racial power dynamics in some observers' eyes, I'm sure.)

Like other actors who came from the sports/bodybuilding sphere -- Steve Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc. -- Strode was not the most subtle or emotive performer around. His career was largely defined by the polarities of intimidating stillness and energetic action -- one often preceding the other. Strode was rarely asked to speak a lot of words or convey a great deal of nonverbal information; his mere presence spoke enough.

His limitations as an actor do pull "Rutledge" down somewhat, particularly during his early scenes where Rutledge rescues Mary Beecher (Towers), a young woman returning to the Arizona frontier after a dozen years away. They're waylaid by Indians at the lonely train depot, and Rutledge is injured while protecting Mary. He strips off his uniform -- why hire a chiseled bod if you're not going to show it off, the thinking must go -- in a scene that is intended to heighten white audiences' discomfort about miscegenation. The whole sequence is just clanky and odd.

Later it's revealed that Rutledge was running AWOL from his post after killing his commanding officer. The officer's teen daughter (Toby Michaels) was found naked and dead next to him, leading to the presumption that Rutledge assaulted and murdered the girl, her father stumbled upon the scene and was killed himself.

Most of the story -- screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck -- takes place during Rutledge's court martial trial with flashbacks to the events. Lt. Cantrell, as Rutledge's immediate superior, is charged with defending him while the slimy Capt. Shattuck (Carleton Young) is the bloodthirsty prosecution. Shattuck is ostensibly a cavalryman but is really -- *shudder* -- a career attorney.

The various testimony, including a stint where Cantrell himself takes a turn on the witness stand, establishes that after being captured by Cantrell and his squad, Rutledge heroically defends his fellow buffalo soldiers during skirmishes with Indians. After initially riding off when given the chance, he returns to the ranks to warn the cavalry about an ambush awaiting them.

The other black soldiers of the 9th U.S. Cavalry -- part of the storied Buffalo Soldiers -- absolutely revere Rutledge as the highest-ranking NCO among them, referring to him as "Top Soldier," even after his disgrace. The high point of the film is when the unit, bloodied and fearing further attack, sings to Rutledge as he stands watch over them, likening him to the mythological "Captain Buffalo" who is their ideal and patron saint.

They act as a sort of Greek chorus, not unlike the black townsfolk witnessing Tom's trial from the balcony in "Mockingbird."

Willis Bouchey plays Otis Fosgate, the Cavalry Colonel overseeing the court martial. He's portrayed as a bumptious figure, sneaking gulps of whiskey during the trial and calling for recesses so he and his fellow officers of the court can smoke and play whiskey in the adjoining room. Still, he seems committed to affording Rutledge a fair trial, or at least a fair as one as a black NCO can receive in 1881.

Billie Burke has the comic relief role as Fosgate's wife, Cordelia, a presumptuous old biddy who manages to ensconce herself in the front row during the trial, even after the colonel has ordered the courtroom cleared. The pair seem to be having their own offscreen war going on, with little peeks of how the conflict we see will lead to further contretemps behind closed doors.

The other notable supporting role is Juano Hernandez as Sgt. Matthew Luke Skidmore, the oldest member of the cavalry regiment and the highest-ranking NCO after Rutledge. He leads the reverential lionizing of Rutledge, while being more realistic about his chances for justice. During his testimony it's revealed that Skidmore must be over 70 years of age, though he doesn't know for certain himself, given his birth as a slave.

"Sergeant Rutledge" is a decent film and certainly a well-meaning one, but it's repeatedly undermined by the awkward introduction of humor, seemingly for no other reason than to keep things light, and the intrusion of a completely unnecessary romance. Cantrell and Mary are destined to wind up together, if for only the reason that he repeatedly refers to her as "the most beautiful girl I've ever seen."

Stiff as he is, Strode does get to deliver one great speech as he takes the stand and breaks down about why he ran away twice, and why he chose to return, knowing the almost certain fatal punishment he would face. He calls the Cavalry the only place he's ever felt like more than the freed slave that he is:

"It was because the Ninth Cavalry was my home, my real freedom, and my self-respect, and the way I was deserting it, I wasn't ... nothing worse than a swamp-running nigger, and I ain't that! Do you hear me? I'm a man!"

It's a great moment, and I'm glad Woody Strode got to have at least one like it during his long career.