Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Review: "The Insult"

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.
            --Proverbs 16:18

The (often misquoted) Bible verse encapsulates the theme of “The Insult,” about two prideful men who steer themselves and their families toward their downfalls over a trivial encounter. This film, which has deservedly been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, is a lesson in how inconsequential conflicts can amass themselves into major cultural/political clashes.

The quote is also applicable in that the center of the men’s antipathy is over religious matters. Set in modern-day Beirut, it’s about a native Lebanese Christian who resents a Palestinian Muslim refugee.

Though very much alike in outward ways -- both hard-working, middle-aged men who lead others in blue-collar vocations -- they can’t get past the basic determination of who “belongs” more to the community, and therefore has status to give or accept an apology. It’s not hard to see how these sorts of issues translate easily to our own shores.

Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), known universally as “Mister Tony,” is in his 40s, a bit gruff, runs a thriving auto repair shop, is about to have his first child with his wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek). He attends Christian Party rallies and blares xenophobic talk radio in his shop all day, inviting complaining refugees to go back where they came from.

(If you’ve ever hung out in a red state auto shop, as I have, you’ll find the timbre of the host not so different from Rush Limbaugh or the like.)

Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is older, 60-ish, a civil engineer overseeing construction/repair projects in Mister Tony’s neighborhood. When he points out that the latter’s balcony drain pipe is in violation of code, Yasser’s Palestinian accent gives him away and his offer to fix it is haughtily refused.

Yasser decides to do it anyway, words are exchanged, Mister Tony demands an apology, and a bit more -- he wants the older fellow to prostrate himself, which he will not do. Neither man’s pride will budge, eventually leading to violence, injury and a lawsuit.

At this point the story turns over to the courtroom, and I’ll admit that a Lebanese legal drama is a rather novel experience for me. The mechanics are a bit different -- three judges, no jury, the attorneys are allowed to cross-talk each other to a large degree -- but from a storytelling standpoint, it’s not terribly different from “The Verdict” or similar American fare.

The case becomes a media sensation, with Christians and Palestinians clashing in the courtroom audience, and later in the streets, in the latest cause célèbre between the factions. Camille Salameh is Yasser’s attorney, who makes the provocative argument that Mister Tony’s insult was so extreme as to cause distress to a member of (in the Arab mind) a persecuted people.

Diamond Bou Abboud steals the show as Mister Tony’s litigator, Wajdi Wehbe, an intense, pint-sized show-boater with a blade for a tongue. He works closely with the ruling government, recently losing a big case defending a senior minister, and is looking to rebuild his reputation.

Directed by Ziad Doueiri (“The Attack”) from a screenplay he cowrote with Joelle Touma, “The Insult” is a marvelously acted, taut story about how difficult it can be to “turn the page” on past depredation. Either to hurt someone, or to be hurt, leaves a mark that cannot be erased as easily as we’d like to think.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Reeling Backward: "The Way We Were" (1973)

"It's about a Jewish woman with a big nose and her blond boyfriend who move to Hollywood, and it's during the blacklist and it puts a strain on their relationship."
                         --Lisa Loopner (aka Gilda Radner), describing "The Way We Were"

"The Way We Were" is one of the few well-known love stories that defies conventional male/female roles. The usual central dynamic can be summed up by what feminist critics call "the male gaze," in which the way the female character is portrayed is defined by how they are beheld by their romantic male counterpart.

In short: women in the movies exist to be gazed upon, and men exist to do the gazing.

The first few moments of "TWWW" flip this on its head. Barbra Streisand sees Robert Redford, and is so overcome by his beauty she literally gasps, her mouth hanging open like a trap door. Indeed, through virtually every encounter they have in the movie, it is she who is the active pursuer and he is the lackadaisical pursued. She is always looking at him, while he usually has his eyes turned elsewhere.

Director Sydney Pollack photographs Redford with a lustrous quality, like a fallen angel loitering about the Earth to amuse himself. His character, Hubbell Gardiner, is the object of affection to Katie Morosky (Streisand), a passionate leftist political activist. She is the proactive character, while his is entirely reactive. Hubbell's defining characteristic is that he doesn't really have one, existing as a beautiful object upon which Katie (and others) project their own aspirations.

Much is made about Hubbell's blondness, which in the movie is intrinsic to his ability to mesmerize. I have commented before on Hollywood's declining favor for fair-haired male movie stars, and indeed, Redford in the 1970s more or less marked the last of the line of blond sex symbols. Katie refers to Hubbell as her "gorgeous goy guy," and one of her pet moves is to brush the coppery locks on his forehead with her fingers -- less a grooming gesture than a a miser fingering his gold.

Pollack was just establishing himself as a mainstream director, despite a number of features already under his belt. He was brought into the project solely upon the basis of his promise to entice Redford, with who he had just made "Jeremiah Johnson," to take the role opposite Streisand, for whom the part was expressly written.

Hubbell had originally been envisioned by screenwriter Arthur Laurents as a supporting character to the firebrand Katie. Laurents based the story on his college experiences in the 1930s and '40s, transposing his own Jewish identity onto the figure of a woman he admired but never pursued romantically.

Pollack petitioned to expand Hubbell to an equal footing, and reportedly brought in a raft of other writers to change the script around without Laurents' knowledge or consent. Despite some sloppy editing and story construction, "TWWW" was rather well-received at the time and was a huge box office hit.

Laurents ultimately retained the sole writing credit, he and Pollack buried the hatchet and even pursued a sequel, which fell apart in the early 1980s. The idea was still was being batted around as late as 2005.

As for Redford and Pollack, they would go on to make five more pictures together, including "Three Days of the Condor" and "Out of Africa."

Hubbell and Katie encounter each other in college around 1938, hit it off but never become a couple until they meet again at the war's end. She takes the drunken Navy man back to her apartment, where he sleepily has movie sex with her -- read: sweet, and short -- not realizing it's Katie. Later, though, he puts it in on purpose.

They stay a pair the rest of the movie, despite stormy waters and several near-breakups, before Hubbell finally dumps her for good right after she's given birth to their daughter. Later they meet up for a moment sometime in the 1950s, fond remembrances of love lost.

Hubbell is defined as being everything Katie is not: an easygoing, likeable WASP with no strong political convictions or even a core identity beyond being a BMOC in college, and the adult equivalent thereafter. His redeeming attribute is that he's aware of how easily everything comes to him, and is able to write about his privilege with flair and a little distance.

At first jealous of Hubbell's writing talent -- she's crushed when the professor picks his short story, instead of the one she'd been laboring on for weeks, to read aloud to the class -- she eventually becomes his caustic muse, pushing him to write more deeply about his characters and subjects. Forever taking a stand against the latest cause, she's vexed when Hubbell appears to stand for nothing other than his own success and comfort.

Their relationship is defined by a pedestal: Katie places Hubbell upon one, convinced he's the perfect man, except for needing a little prodding from her. He's fascinated by her sense of unfailing certainty, whether it's about politics or his own abilities, while she thinks he needs to push himself harder, in life and in his writing. When they move out to California together so Hubbell can pursue a lucrative screenwriting career, their resentments are slowly stoked to the point of no return.

It's fascinating how passive and inert Hubbell really is. Like a classic romcom woman, he allows himself to be defined by his lover, and then grows to resent the box in which she has placed him. Meanwhile, Katie goes through the paces of being the one who decides she must change, even if in the end she goes back to her old life of rabble-rousing.

The film is probably remembered now more for the title song, sung beautifully by Streisand, than the story itself. The supporting characters don't make much of an impact, the two most notable being Bradford Dillman as Hubbell's best friend, J.J., and Lois Chiles as Carol Ann, who ping-pongs back and forth between the two men.

James Woods and Sally Kirkland both turn up in small roles early in their careers.

Patrick O'Neal plays George Bissinger, the director whom Hubbell is working for on an adaptation of his first novel. As near as I can figure, the screenwriting process goes on for months and even years, which seems unlikely for the late 1940s, when it wasn't unusual for writers and directors to have three feature film credits in a year.

The section about the Blacklist isn't terribly compelling, other than it exacerbates the tension inherent in their relationship. Katie wants Hubbell to speak out against the House Un-American Activities Committee, while he thinks it's best to keep his head down. Entire families will be destroyed for nothing, he argues, while Katie sees that laying down before one monstrosity will only invite a worse one.

Unlike its two stars, "The Way We Were" hasn't aged very well. It feels like it would have been a better fit during the Golden Age of Hollywood, where it's set. Of course, it would have been rare for a film of that age to end with the couple splitting up. Just as it is to see a movie in which the usual gender roles are reversed so starkly.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Video review: "Last Flag Flying"

Despite boasting some big names, “Last Flag Flying” hasn’t made any kind of impact during the awards cycle, and quickly disappeared from theaters after a holiday release. That’s a pity. It may not be the best film by Richard Linklater, who co-wrote the script with Darryl Ponicsan, based upon his book. But it’s a worthy look at men weighing their lives, recalling their misspent days of youth while sitting upon the precipice of old age.

Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston play Vietnam veterans who reunite in 2003 to bury the son of one of them after he died in the Iraq war. They haven’t kept in touch in the intervening years, so they’re getting together again for the first time in three decades.

They have undergone changes, of course, and the spaces between them have grown larger. The one who seems the most different from his past is Richard Mueller (Fishburne), who was a rampaging he-man nicknamed “the Mauler” back in the day, and now is a dignified country preacher. Though we soon learn he still has some bite left.

On the flip side, Sal (Cranston) is still the caustic, hard-drinking, hard-partying womanizer he was back in the day. He’s just exchanged his battlefield habitat for the bar scene. He keeps things moving with his constant observations and confrontational quips, mostly directed at Mueller.

Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Carell) was the young, quiet kid in Vietnam, and he’s grown up into a quiet, seemingly meek man. There was some bad business that left Doc in the Navy brig for a couple years, a hazy matter in which they were all complicit but for which he took the fall.

Out of a sense of guilt over the past misdeed, Sal and Richard agree to accompany Doc on his mission to bury his son. The movie becomes a physical and existential journey as they travel by car, train and bus to see this last bit of military service done. This is very much Linklater’s version of “The Last Detail.”

“Last Flag Flying” has a caustic political bent, but in the end, it’s more about these specific men than a broader indictment of war or “the system.” I, for one, enjoyed spending time with them and hearing their stories.

Bonus features are a mite slim. There’s a making-of documentary short, a featurette on Veterans Day, outtakes and deleted scenes.



Thursday, January 25, 2018

Big Fin Therapy: How Buying a 1959 Cadillac Changed My Life

Have you ever tried pushing an ancient behemoth of a car uphill on an interstate off-ramp? By yourself? At the peak of summer? In a three-piece suit?

If so, the thought that urgently ricochets around inside your head is, “This is not the sort of thing smart people do.”

But that was me not so long ago, struggling against -- and losing to -- inertia on Indianapolis’ south side, puffing red-faced as my car inexorably began to roll back down the hill toward 70 m.p.h. traffic. What I lacked in strength I compensated for in coward’s wisdom, jumping back into the driver’s seat to mash the brakes before I’d gone more than a few feet.

Before you’re tempted to declare me a weakling, I should mention the car in question is a 1959 Cadillac sedan -- almost 20 feet and 5,000 pounds of heyday Detroit manufacturing, back when steel was steel and bumpers were the sole safety feature.

I wish I could say this was the first time the Caddy broke down on me, but in truth it was the sixth or seventh. I purchased the car in late 2015 from a local dealer who specializes in antique autos, and he’d bought it from an old drunk who warned the dealer to show up early to finalize the transaction. “I start drinking at 10 o’clock,” the owner growled.

Old cars are much like old men: slow to wake from slumber, and stubborn to stop once they’re going.

The previous owner had been taking care of the car about as well as he took care of himself. It had mostly sat unrunning the past few years, a patina of rust starting to peek out here and there -- and in a few places, straight through -- the vast expanse of black metal, the chrome growing pitted and dull.

Mechanically, it ran under its own power but, in the immortal words of shadetree mechanics everywhere, the Caddy “needed a little love.”

Stuck transmission governor. The first, but hardly last, tow.
More than two years and thousands of dollars later, I still haven’t found the delta of the river of affection the car requires.

And that’s before taking it to the body shop for patching and paint… a process that can empty bank accounts faster than a meth addiction. Since I bought it, I’ve actually had the car in my possession maybe 10 or 11 weeks total.

So why me? Why this troublesome jalopy from a bygone age? Why all this frustration and unrewarded devotion? And why I wouldn’t trade it all for a line of Lamborghinis?

To answer that, you need to learn a little more about the car, and the guy (occasionally) driving it.

Instant icon

You may think you haven’t a clue about classic cars, but actually, everybody knows the 1959 Cadillac. It’s quite possibly the most iconic vehicle design ever, instantly recognizable by its low, sleek body, mountain’s worth of chromite ore on the front and a rear end with the multitudinous points of a dragon’s nape.

1959 Cadillac advertisement.
The single most famous feature, of course, is the towering fins, which rise up over the back of the car like the bony protrusions of a prehistoric predator. It was, quite literally, the apex of a decade of accumulating excess in car design, with American factories cranking out increasingly ostentatious metal beasts.

The fins got so big that, accordingly to lore, clumsy people were actually impaled upon them. The provenance of those tales is suspect, but nonetheless by the close of the 1950s the government stepped in, and for 1960 the otherwise largely unchanged Cadillacs featured much more circumspect fins -- sad little bips, like a toddler mimicking his dad flexing his biceps.

I’ve adored the ’59 Caddies since I was a kid. It’s hard to describe exactly why. Certainly, they are beautiful cars, but there are prettier. It has a massive 390 cubic inch engine; but these are land yachts, not racers, and no hot-rodder ever feared lining up next to one at the stoplight.

And there’s the off-putting martial aspect to its detailing, from the bullet taillights to the fender “gunsight” chrome edging to the front and rear grille pattern that look like rows of polished slugs. It’s practically a rolling NRA poster.

For me, there’s just something indescribably delicious about the yin-yang contrasts of the 1959 Cadillac. It has this odd, intriguing mix of modernity and antiquity, subtlety and braggadocio, gaudiness and grace.

Let me put it this way: the ’59 Caddy may not be the biggest, fastest or loveliest thing ever to roll off an assembly line. But it is the most American car ever made.

Man and machines

It goes without saying, the man is less interesting than the ride. But our stories roll together.

Middle-aged, middle-class dad who grew up in the suburbs and ended up back there, by choice. Loves movies, meat and NBA basketball. Started out in newspapers, rode that till the ride ended for many of us, wandered into marketing a few years ago, still pursues his passions on the side.

A lady, better than I deserve; two towheads little boys who make my heart throb a little every time I look at them. A dog, a decent house in a good neighborhood. Nobody’s idea of rich, but stable.

I’ve always been an old car nut. Before 1974, when the oil crunch and safety mavens ushered in the new era of fuel efficiency and crash ratings, American cars were distinctive, original, unabashedly stylish. It was easy to distinguish the 1966 model from the ’68. Folks traded in every three years, excited about the newest designs. Even low-end stuff looked good.

Today’s vehicles are much more functional, and utterly forgettable. Good luck telling a Camry from a Sonata from an Altima. Many otherwise sane people consciously choose gray as their car’s color. Heaven help us.

My first love was the 1969 Mustang fastback. By the time I became old enough to appreciate cars, they were already pretty old. I boasted to my dad I would buy one when I grew up. He laughed, dismissed it as a waste of money.

Dad's dream car remained a dream.
Later, he confessed his eternal regret at not getting a white Ford Thunderbird in 1956, the year they hung the spare tire on the back of the car. He thought that was cool, and was about to muster out of the Air Force with money to spend.

Learning my father’s lesson, in my 20s I bought a Mustang, dirt cheap and well-rotted. Had most of the exterior sheet metal replaced, did much of the interior myself. Paid for all of it with a cash advance, moving the balance from credit card to credit card until it was finally flush. Crazy.

I loved that car, and drove it all around. Still do.

Now comes the sad and weepy part of this tale. Like a lot of people since the Great Recession, I lost a lot of things. My career. A big chunk of my savings. People I loved. My youthful illusion of invincibility.

Life begins, life ends.
Five years ago, my dad passed after a long battle with cancer. Wasn’t much more than a bag of sticks at the end. But he was 82, and he was ready. Said so himself. Maybe they have white Thunderbirds in the beyond, with tires on the back.

Two years later, my oldest sister had her own bout with cancer, was undergoing chemotherapy and seemed to be doing well. One day she went into torpor, didn’t want to get off the couch. Took her to the hospital and the doctors thought she was depressed. Turned out the tumors had metastasized into her brain. Caused an ischemic stroke -- she was gone within hours, aged 47.

Six months after that, I sat in a very cold room as a doctor explained the type of brain tumor I had -- prognosis, treatment options and associated risks, long-term effects and outcomes.

Loss, then gain

OK, I’m guessing that right about now you’re thinking, “I started reading a story about cool cars and somehow wandered into Dostoevsky.” So I’ll pull this tragedy out of its tailspin now and assure you that I am not dying. At least, not any faster than you.

I don’t hear so well anymore, and I get dizzy and tired sometimes. But that’s about as far as it goes. They say that for brain tumors, I have the “good” kind. (Which is a ludicrous thing to say.)

What I did unexpectedly wind up with after this long march of despair was: dough.

Rachel passed at age 47.
My sister never married and made decent money, and had life insurance. It took a while to sort out because she left no will, but after probate my mother inherited a not inconsiderable amount of money, some of which she shared with me and my other sister.

My wife and I used a large chunk of the inheritance to shore up the boys’ college funds and take care of some household fixes. We also agreed to let me separate a portion of it for myself, in keeping with family tradition.

I considered opening an IRA, but I already have a couple of retirement accounts and they’re doing OK, plus I didn’t want the hassle of managing another. And it wasn’t the kind of money you hand to an investment broker; any returns would be so small they’d be eaten up by fees.

So, I sat on it. A year passed.

It’s not exactly clear when the notion of buying another classic car transmogrified from daytime fantasy into an actionable plan. Certainly, I was noodling around with looking up current prices of classic cars. I have a handful of favorites I’ve dreamed of owning: a 1963 Corvette split-window hardtop, maybe a ’65 GTO. Or the real prize, a ’59 Caddy. It’s standard daydreaming M.O. -- you see what stuff is going for and muse about winning the Powerball.

Because they’re iconic, 1959 Cadillacs are highly collectible and thus more valuable than a ’60 or a ’58. A nicely preserved or restored one was out of my reach. But maybe I could do like I did with my Mustang, buy cheap and fix it up over time.

Things quickly crystallized when I stumbled across the dealer, who specializes in old Cadillacs and Mercedes. I swung by his shop, a nondescript place near Downtown Indy, and found a treasure trove. Funny thing: despite always loving the ’59 Cadillacs, I think I’d only ever seen one in person before. The guy had seven of them on hand.

Pretty much on the spot, I resolved to buy the car. To paraphrase author John Green, I tend to make big decisions the way people fall asleep: slowly, then all at once. I’ll think about something for six months or a year, then a switch gets flipped. Only two logistical concerns had to be addressed before signing on the dotted line: my wife and my garage.

The latter was simpler; I needed to measure if my standard garage would house such a monster. The answer came quickly: juuuuuuuust barely. The whole thing came as a surprise to my spouse, whom I’d spoken to briefly about the idea not long before in purely hypothetical terms. She took it pretty well, letting me know it would be wise if I could take steps in the next few months to reassure her I was sane.

That is why

The first few weeks after the purchase were pure heaven. The reasons I first had for buying the Caddy were pretty obvious to any casual observer: I’d suffered a lot of loss, and needed something to fill that hole. Some people take up a new hobby, or pick up and move somewhere new. Others acquire strays: dogs, cats, spouses. I got a big-ass old car.

Also, since losing my journalism gig I’ve been playing things pretty safe. No big purchases other than replacing stuff that breaks. Very modest vacations. No life-altering risks.

Call it mid-life crisis if you want, but I needed to do the not-smart thing for once. The illogic of the move was its very appeal.

I actually stated writing this article right after the purchase, when the temporary high still had me buoyed on a cloud of optimism. Like all things it faded with time, as the timeline for the car’s refurbishment stretched from weeks to months to years.

It’s pretty much a routine at this point: the Caddy has moved from shop to shop, coming home for a week or two at time in between the next round of repairs. Then it’ll go to the next shop, usually for two, three, four months at a time.

So... many... electrical issues.
It largely spent the winter of 2015-16 under a blanket of snow in the Indianapolis neighborhood of SoBro. Last spring, I ached to drive it during the crisp, beautiful days -- but we were parted the whole season.

Fixing an almost-60-year-old car is not like taking your Honda to the corner shop for a brake job. Lots of parts you just can’t find, or they’re prohibitively expensive. Finding mechanics with the expertise to work on vintage vehicles gets a bit harder every year.

At first, I was frustrated as hell at the delays. Two months to have the instrument cluster rebuilt??? What do you mean that wasn’t the right part?!?

The worst thing is to have your vehicle labeled a “project car,” because that becomes code for “the last thing that gets worked on.” The boys at the electrical shop called me up after four months to say, as nicely as possible, that they were tired of looking at the thing and would I please come get it.

But as time has gone on, I’ve gradually learned to accrue more patience for the process. Oddly, the emotional bond I have with the Caddy has grown the longer we’re apart. Because we’re a pair: aging, a bit battered, often not given the respect we’re due… but still running.

Owning the Cadillac has been a wagon train of frustrations, yet somehow, I’ve learned to not only embrace but on some level relish those hindrances. Because unlike people, cars can always be fixed. No mechanical problem is unsurmountable if you’re willing to invest the time and resources to address it.

Each setback is a learning experience. Every time the Caddy has broken down on me, I’ve acquired a new story. Somebody always stops to lend a hand. Or to tell how their dad owned one just like it back in the day. Or just to gawk at the intrinsic spectacle the car creates, even unmoving.

My favorite anecdote about the Cadillac actually occurred when I wasn’t even around. An elderly woman happening by the shop insisted that she be allowed to sit in the back seat, because it’s the same type of car she went courting in as a young lady. I can just picture the mechanic, tatted up with arms like a linebacker, tenderly opening the door for her like a tuxedoed chauffer.

So the deeper gift the Cadillac has given me is perspective. Things make take longer than you like, you’ll probably experience obstacles, there may be times your goals remain stuck on the horizon.

But even when you’re trying and failing, that means you haven’t given up.

Having sworn off easy fixes, I’ve managed to take that longer view and apply it to other areas of life. I think I’m a more attentive husband and father. I made changes in my lifestyle and diet, and lost 30 pounds. I even upgraded my business attire, eschewing the polo-and-khakis of the marketing culture for suits, ties and vests. (Thus, my get-up at the beginning of this tale.)

In the end, I don’t know how much wisdom there is really to be found in purchasing dilapidated old cars. You could just as easily invest your time and emotions in coaching youth baseball, collecting Hummel figurines or crocheting horrendous sweaters. Our own version of truth is not something we find, but something we make.

But here is what I do know: When you’re feeling broken, find something you can fix.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Review: "Hostiles"

There is dour. Then there is grim. Then there is bleak. Then there is despair. Then there is "Hostiles."

Last year's film slate (of which this is technically part) was noted for its raft of downbeat, depressing movies. Even against that yardstick, though, "Hostiles" still must be assessed as one of the most intensely melancholic. If it's possible to have an uplifting cinematic experience while mired in tragedy, then here it is.

Christian Bale plays Captain Joseph Blocker, a weary cavalry soldier and legendary Indian hunter who is about to retire. He's virulently racist, alcoholic, burnt out. Absent circumstances presented in the course of the story, he'd probably drink himself into a lonely, hateful death within a year or two.

But his commander orders him to perform one last service: escorting Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a Comanche war chief who is now dying of cancer, and has received permission to take his family to their ancestral home in Montana to be at final piece. The kicker: Blocker and Yellow Hawk were bitter enemies during the Indian wars, and each can count many friends and loved ones who perished at the other's hand.

Their journey begins in silence and defiance. Others are picked up along the way. Ben Foster plays Charles Wills, a disgraced soldier who has been sentenced to be hanged for his crimes. Blocker knows him, too, from the old days.

More affecting is the presence of Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a frontier woman whose husband and children were just slaughtered in front of her eyes. When the group first encounters her, Rosalie is squatting in the burned-out wreckage of her home, the cold corpse of her baby clutched to her chest. Slowly-- very slowly -- she comes out of her shell of despair, and starts to make meaningful new connections.

Adam Beach shines as Black Hawk, son of Yellow Hawk, who is always his father's son but also reaches out to the bitter white man who hates his kind. The rest of the background players fill their places with conviction and purity, among them Jesse Plemons and Timothee Chalamet.

Writer/director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart") has given us a beautiful, spare vision of the American West on the cusp of the 20th century. Though it is a story of specific people, they are dealing with many of the issues we still face today: tribal conflict, racial enmity, gendered roles, etc.

In many ways, "Hostiles" is a portrait of all the capacities America holds, both for greatness and for wretchedness. This story, of two men who have every reason to hate each other, finally grants us a tiny nugget of hope.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Lightning fast Oscar reaction

  • #MeToo gets James Franco. After winning the Golden Globe, he's now persona non grata.
  •  Martin McDonagh of "Three Billboards" shunted aside for cool kids, aka first-time directors Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig. 
  • Strong showing in general for "Get Out," the most overrated film of the year. 
  • It's rare for youngsters to get a Best Actor nomination in their first big role, so Daniel Kaluuya and Timothee Chalamat are surprises. Stronger contenders were out there.
  • Very surprised and happy to see Woody Harrelson to get a supporting actor nod for "Three Billboards." I much preferred him to Sam Rockwell (he was good, doing a caricature for most of the movie). The two will now compete for the prize.
  • Jessica Chastain gets no love, and "Molly's Game" in general fared poorly with just a script nomination.
  • The Indiana Film Journalists Association's screenplay award for "Logan" proves prescient. I'm tellin' ya, the IFJA should be a bigger part of the awards build-up fanfare!
  • Disappointed by lack of Best Pic nomination for "The Florida Project." Small film, but it got plenty of attention.
  • I think Denzel and Octavia could blow their noses and get nominations. They're like when aging NBA stars get voted into the All-Star game no matter how they played. Did anyone even see "Roman J. Israel, Esquire?"
  • A plum for Plummer. What a career-capper, to be a last-minute add to a big movie and steal the whole show.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Video review: "Goodbye Christopher Robin"

It didn’t get a lot of attention during the early awards cycle or sell many tickets, but “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is an absolutely gorgeous film that explores some rather ugly subjects. On the surface it’s a look at the private life of “Winnie-the-Pooh” creator A.A. Milne. But on a deeper level, the movie serves as a portrait of a family whose dysfunction is widened by sudden fame.

Before World War I, Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) was a successful playwright of light comedies. But after being affected by the horrors of combat, he retreated to the countryside to write a treatise on the urgency for peace. He and his wife, Daphne (Marge Robbie), bring along their beloved tyke, Christopher Robin, known to them as Billy Moon (Will Tilston). It would see a perfect bucolic setting to bring them together.

Except… Milne finds he can’t write a word. Daphne tires of the sticks and decamps for the city life. And Billy Moon feels lost between them.

Eventually Milne and his son draw closer, and he crafts a series of stories involving him and a bunch of his stuffed animals, which the writer brings to life. Virtually overnight, Pooh becomes a sensation and Billy is turned into a celebrity, the representation of the perfect British lad. Tours, interviews, public appearances and the like becomes his new normal.

Kelly Macdonald plays Olive, the devoted nanny who largely takes care of Billy Moon while the parents are (often) physically or emotionally absent. She tries to warn them about what the effect of sudden fame could be to a little boy.

For his part, Milne finds himself resenting his own son. The people adored Pooh and Christopher Robin, but somehow the man who conjured them up and put them down on paper becomes almost a bystander.

Perhaps because it’s a challenging look at a family driven apart by money and fame, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” did not get all the consideration it deserved while it was (briefly) in theaters. Here’s hoping it gets a chance on home video.

Bonus features are decent enough, cemented by a feature-length audio commentary track by director Simon Curtis and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce. There are also several promotional featurettes about the production and a gallery of photos from the set.



Thursday, January 18, 2018

Review: "12 Strong"

"12 Strong" is the true story of the Horse Soldiers, the nickname given to U.S. Army special forces soldiers and intelligence officers who were the very first to fight the terrorist enemies in the aftermath of 9/11. Their actions, which were reported at the time in fall 2001, would seem on its face like a bunch of Hollywood hooey: literally riding horses against Soviet-made tanks and artillery.

It really happened, so here is the now-declassified cinematic version of events. Starring Chris Hemsworth and Michael Shannon, it's an invigorating war action/drama that shows how modern soldiers had to relearn their craft in order to take the fight to an enemy with a literally medieval mindset, embracing rather than fearing death, while having to rely on new allies who were often more interested in fighting ancient tribal grudges.

At 140 minutes, the movie is rather too long, particularly the action scenes that make up the bulk of the second half. Director Nicolai Fuglsig ("Exfil") knows how to stage military mayhem well, but not when to cut it off. Sequences often devolve into repetitive snatches of an American killing three Taliban with three bullets, while they themselves avoid thousands of round shot at them.

Hemsworth plays Mitch Nelson, the grounded but unseasoned captain of the best squad, part of Task Force Dagger, while Shannon is Cal Spencer, the grizzled chief warrant officer who acts as his right-hand man. When their team is first deployed in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance warlord they've been assigned to assist, General Dostum (Navid Negahban), at first assumes the older man is the leader, because he has the "killer eyes" the younger captain lacks.

The rest of the team falls into the usual rogues gallery blend of background players, where you get just enough information to learn their faces and personalities without every really getting to know their names. Michael Peña plays Sam, another one of the senior guys on the crew. William Fichtner and Rob Riggle play the two colonels overseeing the mission from afar.

That's a pretty solid cast, and I was a little disappointed the script -- by Ted Tally and Peter Craig, based on a book by Doug Stanton -- doesn't give them more to do than spout the usual grim/heroic lines and fire a bunch of guns. It's the first movie I've seen Michael Shannon in where I thought that any number of actors could do what he did.

How much of what's depicted is literally true, I cannot say. Certainly the names and specific events have been changed around. 

The basic mission remains the same, though, to fight elements of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban through a succession of villages up the mountain pass of Tiangi Gap, with the goal of capturing the pivotal city of Mazar-i-Sharif before the winter snows make the route impassable. Officially their job is to stay in the back and call in air strikes, but of course they soon get into the midst of the firefight.

If it were a Western -- which, in a way, it kind of is -- "12 Strong" would be what we call an old-fashioned "oater": straightforward, effective, full of gunplay, not especially original. But like the men it heralds, it gets the job done.

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.