Sunday, January 25, 2015

Expiration Date (2006)

Director: Rick Stevenson                              Writers: Rick Stevenson & Hamish Gunn
Film Score: B.C. Smith                                 Cinematography: Bruce Worrall
Starring: Robert A. Guthrie, Sascha Knopf, Dee Wallace and David Keith

This is a very clever movie, and it’s not hard to see how it won so many awards--thirty one, by one count. That said, it’s just this side of good for me, but perhaps it’s just my taste in comedy, which leans much more toward the dry. Expiration Date by Rick Stevenson manages to weave some very interesting elements together to come up with a zany romantic comedy. The film is set in Seattle and while it is a small, independent feature it nevertheless managed to attract some name stars, including Dee Wallace, David Keith, and Richard Sanders. The film was shot in Seattle and lovingly frames the city in many different lights and times of day. One of the many terrific running gags in the film, however, is that from seemingly every exterior angle in the film you can see the Space Needle in the distance. Writer-director Rick Stevenson isn’t exactly a young filmmaker on the come, but had already tasted some success in Hollywood beginning as a producer back in the eighties before turning to writing and directing. It was through his work with name stars that he was able to call in some favors and probably ensured the financing and distribution that earned him all those film festival awards. It’s a solid film that has a lot to like, but also some pretty big flaws that keep it from being anywhere near great.

The opening draws on two films in particular. The idea of the old man telling the young boy a story--one that is interrupted in the middle--is borrowed directly from The Princess Bride. The other element, the milk bottle in the paper sack instead of booze, was done by Harper Lee in her novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The old man is played by Ned Romero, and when he sees the young Nakotah LaRance waiting for the bus at the reservation stop, he wants to tell him a story. LaRance doesn’t want to hear any “oral tradition” garbage, but Romero cons him by telling him there’s a part where the girl does this thing with her lips. Waiting anyway, he agrees, and Romero tells him the story of Robert A. Guthrie, whose father and grandfather both died on their twenty-fifth birthday, and were both killed by milk trucks. Guthrie, with only eight days to go until his twenty-fifth birthday, is looking at funeral plots, shopping for caskets, and making a list of the things he wants to do in his remaining days. His mother, Dee Wallace, owns a flower shop and she has already mapped out the milk deliver routes on a map for him. Then one day while picking out a casket he meets Sascha Knopf, inside the casket he wants. They begin by arguing over it because she saw it first and wants it for her dying mother. But he has the money, so he buys it out from under her, starting a feud that includes painting on each other’s front doors.

There’s a definite chemistry between the perky Knopf and the depressed Guthrie, but he refuses to give in to anything like affection because he knows he’s going to die. Eventually, however, he goes to see her mother in the cancer clinic and learns that it is actually Knopf who is dying and suddenly the romance is on. Meanwhile Guthrie works in a coffee shop full of zany customers like the long-haired ex-marine David Keith, and Brandon Whitehead, who can’t get enough caffeine. There are so many running gags in the film it’s difficult to keep up with them all. Knopf has an adopted dog named Roadkill, who has narcolepsy and passes out on the sidewalk where people assume he’s dead. The coffee shop where Guthrie works is owned by Benjamin Ratner, but none of the customers want him to make their coffee as only Guthrie will do. And when Guthrie is dating Knopf she tells him she has a stalker. Unfortunately, he’s a milk delivery driver with a cow figure hanging in a noose from his rearview mirror. When Knopf goes in for her first kiss with Guthrie she tells him that she wants to do it like the old movies where their lips get incredibly close to each other without actually touching. This is another running gag, and it also stops the film when LaRance is outraged that this is the moment he was waiting for. But he’s too far in to stop now, and tells Romero to finish his tale.

As I stated earlier, this is a comedy that is on the exaggerated side, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety. This is too bad. All of the actors tend to overact, as though they’re trying to create bigger than life characters, but instead it simply comes off as stilted and affected. Guthrie, in particular, plays his depression too forward and it gets in the way of his performance. Dee Wallace spends most of her time yelling, either in delight or in fear, while David Keith chews the scenery in his trucker hat and bared arms trying to pick up every woman in the coffee shop. Richard Sanders, who is almost exclusively known for his nebbish role on the seventies sit-com WKRP Cincinnati, is the best of the three as a cemetery manager. The writing is very good, and the surreal nature of the film is definitely inspired. Unfortunately, Stevenson’s ability to handle the actors is not very good, and what could have been a comedy gem had the actors been reined in, allowing the dialogue and situations to provide the humor rather than the characters, instead gets mired in missed opportunities. Even so, Expiration Date is a clever and entertaining film that has pleased a lot of fans over the past decade, and it’s one of the better independent films to come out of Seattle in the past fifteen years.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Roomies (2010)

Director: Jared Yanez                                    Writer: Jared Yanez
Film Score: Andrew Parish                            Cinematography: Westley Cornwell
Starring: Quinn Allan, Katie Mentesana, Benjamin Farmer and Geno Romo

The Roomies is another film from the crop of young, independent filmmakers coming out of Portland, Oregon. Director Jared Yanez and star Quinn Allan are part of a production company in Portland, Mongrel Studios, creating a tremendous variety of media projects. My entre into the film was through Allan and Benjamin Farmer, who had appeared together in Jon Garcia’s The Falls, one of the best films I’ve seen in the last twenty years. This film, however, has the distinction of introducing me to an incredible talent in Katie Mentesana, an absolutely beautiful actress who has a remarkable onscreen presence, and an honesty that positively leaps off of the screen. The film begins with Quinn Allan’s face beneath running water, then finally emerging in a baptism. But this is quickly replaced by him pulling his head out of a toilet, and being somewhat mystified as to why it was there. It turns out he’s drunk in a bar with his friends Geno Romo and Ben Farmer, who are all moving in together the next day. Allan is a new Christian and his friends are teasing him and talking about video games and getting drunk with Carly Carcione. The next morning he stuffs all of his belongings into a garbage back, leaves them at his new apartment, and heads to church.

But in the next scene the housewarming party is underway with plenty of, sex, drugs, and drinking, and Allan still seems mystified by the emptiness of it all. He is apparently trying for some kind of change in his life, but living with his friends, the loud and obnoxious pothead Romo, and the musician Farmer, is not very conducive to a new way of life. It’s not until Romo’s girlfriend, Katie Mentesana, is about to move in that the audience learns Allan works online as a moderator for the discussion boards at a porno site. Then, at an open mic where Farmer is performing, Farmer’s girlfriend, Carcione, hits on Allan, and the gig is followed by yet another party at the apartment where Carcione calls Allan “dark.” What had been sort of a goofy comedy about roommates, suddenly takes a turn for the surreal. Romo drives Allen over to the house of a business man he’s trying to get to invest in Farmer’s band, but Matt Mascaro is actually an ex-con drug dealer who is more than a little strange, including Mascaro’s mother, Kim Page, huddled on one end of the couch crying. Back at the apartment Romo bashes Allen for stealing girlfriends away from him in high school, and later Farmer confronts Allen for the fact he’s not actually paying rent at the apartment. The crisis point comes when both of his friends decide to move out.

Writer-director Jared Yanez definitely has a distinctive visual style behind the camera. He has a deft hand at montage and his setups and composition are terrific to look at. This is easily the most compelling thing about the film. If there is anything lacking, though, it is the screenplay. But then that’s the case with a lot of independent films. There’s a certain banality to the dialogue that causes the actors to try a little too hard to bring life to it, something reminiscent of John Sayles' first film, Return of the Secaucus Seven. Quinn Allen’s work in the film is a bit inconsistent. It’s a good part, but it seems difficult for him to know how to play it. Ben Farmer starts out a little rocky as well, but soon settles into his role as the more financially responsible of the three. Geno Romo was the only actor I really had anything good to say about in an otherwise execrable film called Lake Noir, which also featured Ben Farmer in a bit part. The irony is, while he was the best actor in that film, he’s the least effective actor here. I get what Yanez is going for with the part, but Romo’s performance comes off as more of a caricature than a believable person.

While I had a difficult time warming to the story there is, however, one incredibly beautiful scene in which Quinn Allan and Katie Mentesana are packing up Romo’s things so he can move out of the apartment. The bed is too heavy, though, so they lie down and begin talking in a relaxed and casual way. Yanez makes an interesting choice here to build a bit of tension and, instead of letting the scene unfold by itself, he intercuts a brief scene showing Farmer and Carcione’s relationship hitting a snag. Then, when he cuts back, the tension is finally released as Allan and Mentesana begin to tease each other, get physical, and when she finally kisses him it leads to the inevitable. The chemistry between the two is tremendous, and pushes the film into some incredibly interesting territory. The problem is, this needed to happen twenty minutes into the film. As it stands, just as things really get going, the film winds to a close. In fact, the last act of the film is so good in comparison to the first hour and a half that it’s difficult to know how to feel about it as a whole. It’s not surprising that the film won a film festival award, as the last twenty minutes of the film leaves the viewer speechless. Though not a great film overall, The Roomies has a lot to recommend it and as a first film it is impressive. With any luck Jared Yanez will be able to direct some more features soon and build on this great start.

Friday, January 23, 2015

American Hustle (2013)

Director: David O. Russell                            Writers: David O. Russell & Eric W. Singer
Film Score: Danny Elfman                            Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner

Though there has been the occasional 1970s inspired film now and again, the period has been ripe for re-visitation in recent years. American Hustle, dives head first into shag carpets, leisure suits and disco in setting its seriocomic caper in the “me decade,” and comes away with some genuine moments of “the real thing.” The story is loosely based on the Abscam case run by the FBI in the late seventies and early eighties that used a phony Arab front man to entice public figures into taking bribes. The film is something of a comedy, though still fairly serious in the way that it unfolds and the real draw is the acting. Amy Adams gives a bravura performance--as well as exposing a lot of cleavage--with Christian Bale in a beautifully costumed role in a fat suit and long hair. Jennifer Lawrence also does a tremendous job in a supporting role and almost certainly would have won an Oscar had the film not been up against 12 Years a Slave that year. In fact, one of the astounding things about the film is that it was nominated for ten Academy Awards and came away with nothing. It is something of a rambling story and the improvisational nature of the dialogue leaves something to be desired, but it is impressive for those standout performances.

The film begins with a sting operation. Christian Bale is in his hotel room putting fake hair on his bald head and doing a monstrous comb-over. He meets up with Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams in the room with the video monitors, and instantly they get into an argument. During the sting the mayor, Jeremy Renner, doesn’t take the bait and leaves, at which point Cooper forces Bale out to get him back. In a flashback Bale tells about how he broke windows so his dad could get business at his glass store, and how he met Amy Adams at a pool party in Long Island and bonded over Duke Ellington. She’s a stripper, and when she discovers his real business is cheating people out of fees for getting them loans they’ll never receive, she walks out, only to walk back in again with a British accent and doubling his take as his assistant, in more ways that one as they begin a sexual relationship. But trouble arrives in the form of Bradley Cooper, who says that he’s desperate for a loan. Bale smells trouble but when Adams takes his check, the world comes down on them. The bottom line is that in order for Bale to get Adams and himself off the hook, he has to use his talents to sting four other big fish and the two of them will walk.

The one quibble I have with the film, and it is a significant one, is the music. After watching the entire movie I still don’t know what the point of the music is. Russell and his people chose a great number of distinctive seventies pop songs to fill the soundtrack, but all of the music in the film--and I mean every song--is from 1974 and earlier. The film is set in 1978, and yet there is nothing from that year on the soundtrack. The most egregious example of this is in the disco scene, when Adams and Cooper go to a discotheque and the song playing in the club is “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Now, Thelma Houston released a version of that song in early 1977, and that would have been perfect for the scene. Instead, however, incomprehensibly, they played the original version by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes from 1975. I’m sure to most people a seventies song is a seventies song, but to set a film smack dab in the middle of the disco era and not use a single disco song on the soundtrack makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. It’s too bad, because it’s the one element that rings absolutely false to anyone who lived in the era and paid any attention to popular music at all.

There are several narrative strings that are working here in David Russell’s screenplay. On the one hand there’s a bit of The Wrestler, with Amy Adams acting briefly as a stripper combined with the low class world of Bale. It turns out he is married to Jennifer Lawrence and has adopted her son, and he’s unwilling to leave her to run away with Adams which creates a lot of tension between the three of them. The relationship between Adams and Bale is reminiscent of any number of caper films--Matchstick Men comes to mind--in which the relationship itself seems like a con. But the most blatant comparison comes with Bradley Cooper’s character in his similarity to Gene Hackman in Get Shorty. Where he started out simply to get the couple to help him bag some bigger players, he quickly gets caught up in his own newfound sense of power and keeps biting off more and more. While Bale is urging him with all of his sincerity to slow down and scale back, Cooper can’t help himself. The ending, of course, is classic caper film material and one of the more satisfying elements of the production. American Hustle is not a film that is obviously great, but it does finish with a sense of satisfaction that seems impressive in retrospect.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Tall T (1957)

Director: Budd Boetticher                            Writer: Burt Kennedy
Film Score: Heinz Roemheld                       Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr.
Starring: Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maurine O’Sullivan and Arthur Hunnicutt

Another of the mid-fifties westerns that Randolph Scott made for Columbia, The Tall T is notable for the simple fact that the title is never explained, though one presumes this is the brand that Scott uses for his cattle. In actuality, the film had been called The Captives throughout production, but executives discovered that there was another film by that name and changed it. The intent of the new title was that it was the brand of the ranch where Scott intends to by a bull for his ranch. The film also has the distinction of being the first of Elmore Leonard’s works to be adapted for the screen. Primarily known as a writer of humorous crime fiction in later life, Leonard had also written western stories early in his career, including the story that 3:10 to Yuma was based on. This was the second of several films Scott made with director Budd Boetticher, the first of which, Seven Men from Now, being such a commercial success that it led to a total of seven collaborations. The film was also one of Maurine O’Sullivan’s final film performances, after she had moved almost exclusively to television in the fifties.

Randolph Scott plays an Arizona rancher, going into Contention to buy a seed bull for his new ranch. Along the way he stops at a stage depot to water his horse. The place is run by a friend of his, Fred Sherman, and his young son Christopher Olsen. Once in town he meets Arthur Hunnicutt who drives a stagecoach and talks about the train taking over. Meanwhile Maurine O’Sullivan and her husband John Hubbard are going to be chartering Hunnicutt’s stage to Bisbee, and Hunnicutt is convinced that Hubbard only married her to get his hands on her father’s copper mining business. Instead of getting a bull, Scott loses his horse in a bet and winds up walking home with his saddle, flagging down Hunnicutt’s stagecoach. But when they get to the station Sherman and Olsen have been killed, and Richard Boone and his men have taken over the place waiting to rob the regular stagecoach. The weak-willed Hubbard instantly tries to give up O’Sullivan as a hostage to get ransom from her father, so Boone sends a ransom note back to Contention with him and heads toward Scott’s place with O’Sullivan to wait for the money. The bulk of the story takes place a few miles from Scott’s ranch as they wait for the ransom money, giving time for Scott and O’Sullivan to bond and figure out a way to stay alive.

These westerns are little more than stripped down morality tales. Boone becomes sickened by the fact that Hubbard sold out his wife in order to safe himself, and he also talks about how he wants to have a place of his own, a ranch like Scott’s. Scott has a difficult time understanding this. He doesn’t see how killing and robbing to get those things is any different that what Hubbard did, but Boone tells him, “If you can’t see the difference, I ain’t gonna explain it to you.” Boone’s partners are Skip Homeier, a young kid with no family, and Henry Silva, a Chinese killer, and he doesn’t like either one of them. In fact, Boone has never killed a man in his life, though Scott isn’t buying the distinction considering that he consents to allow them to do his dirty work for him. What is so fascinating is that the film almost begins as a comedy, with Scott betting his previous boss, Robert Burton, that he can ride a bull and loses his horse to him after diving in a water trough to escape the bull when he’s thrown off. Then he has to walk fifteen miles back to his ranch with his saddle over his shoulder.

But even during the tense moments waiting for the money there is a bit of comedy relief. When Scott comes out of the opening to the mineshaft where he and O’Sullivan have been sleeping, he hits his head on the beam and sends Boone into a riot of laughter. The relationship between Boone and Scott is the real focal point of the film. Boone is fascinated by this man who tells the truth, even admitting that he’s afraid, and keeps his dignity no matter what happens. This is in stark contrast to Hubbard, a man who cares more about his own life than his wife’s, and it probably bothers Boone so much because he reminds him too much of himself. In fact, at the end of the picture Boone knows Scott so well that he actually walks away from him while Scott holds a gun on him, so sure he is that Scott would never shoot him in the back. The Tall T may be a simple story, but it is told extremely well and acted to perfection. It is one of the better of the Scott-Boetticher films and is as entertaining as westerns get.

No Sad Songs for Me (1950)

Director: Rudolph Maté                              Writer: Howard Koch
Film Score: George Duning                       Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Starring: Margaret Sullavan, Wendell Corey, Natalie Wood and John McIntire

Though this is a heart-breaking premise in any era, it is unfortunately all too common today. But in the fifties this was the kind of story that was gaining traction, the kind of thing that was causing conflict amid the suburban perfection of the post-war era. No Sad Songs for Me is the kind of film that Douglas Sirk would begin to make in earnest during that decade. Ironically, Sirk had left Columbia the previous year to return to Germany, and came back a year later to sign a contract with Universal where he made his most well-known films. Rudolph Maté, on the other hand, had only been recently promoted from cameraman to director at Columbia and helmed this tearjerker with a steady hand. Though the trailer for the picture proclaims in large block letters that this was the first time the idea had been filmed, a similar story had been done in a less domestic way before, with Bette Davis at Warner Brothers in 1939 with Dark Victory. Here the setting is updated to modern day Los Angeles and with the family already in place. What’s unique is bringing in the idea of adultery, the only other real crisis in suburbia, and weaving that together with the primary storyline. Miraculously, the usually ham-fisted composer George Duning was the only person to earn an Academy Award nod for his, frankly, rather generic romantic score.

The story begins at the home of Margaret Sullavan, her husband Wendell Corey, and their daughter Natalie Wood. Everyone is excited because Sullavan believes she is pregnant and is going to the doctor for conformation that day. Meanwhile Corey is in the middle of a bit development project and is set to make a ton of money when it’s completed. But when Sullavan goes to see the doctor, John McIntire, he has worse news than the fact she can’t conceive. He tries to hide it from her, but she comes back into his office and demands the truth: she has cancer and only a few months left to live. These were still the days when doctors used to keep that kind of news from the patient, letting the family know but allowing the patients to live in ignorance in the assumption it would make their lives happier. That idea has gone by the wayside since then and, in fact, in the opposite direction. Films like My Life Without Me and the Showtime series The Big C show doctors who are now only allowed to tell the patients, and patients who keep the news to themselves so that they really can enjoy their remaining time without being drowned in pity and patronization. Sullavan gets the news in the late fall, at the same time Corey hires a female draftsman, Viveca Lindfors, to help him complete his project before his spring deadline.

As Sullavan’s constitution gradually weakens, Corey begins to spend more time with Lindfors and feels increasingly guilty about it. But it’s not until Sullavan visits her father in San Francisco and sees an old friend, Harlan Warde--who has lost his wife and is dating a real shrew--that she realizes she needs to engineer a relationship between Corey and Lindfors for when she’s gone. While Margaret Sullavan was extremely popular in the forties at MGM, she had a relatively brief career, appearing in only sixteen films and preferring the stage to the screen. This was her last film before retiring, and she demonstrates why she was so popular. Though not a traditional Hollywood beauty, she exudes strength and, if anything, her performance here is more subtle than in her forties work. Wendell Corey is terrific to see, appearing in only a few dozen films in the late forties and early fifties, before working primarily in television for the remainder of his career. The picture is also notable for the appearance of a young Natalie Wood in her twelfth film. Then there is Viveca Lindfors, a Swedish actress in the mold of Ingrid Bergman. After making several films in Sweden during the war she signed a contract with Warner Brothers and made this film on loan to Columbia.

The film received generally positive reviews on its release, especially for Margaret Sullavan’s performance. But Howard Koch’s lucid screenplay also came in for praise. Koch was, of course, instrumental in the synthesis of the screenplay for Casablanca as well as a number of other great Warner Brothers pictures, and was another tragedy of the communist witch-hunts and blacklisted shortly after this film was made. The other actors of note in the film are Jeanette Nolan, who got her start with Orson Welles and was appearing here in only her fourth film, and Ann Doran as one of Sullavan’s friends. Finally, the great John McIntire plays the family doctor and brings his patented gravitas to the role. The film is a good one, with a fascinating story line that while not so shocking today, is still wonderful to watch in the way it unfolds. No Sad Songs for Me is a vintage slice of fifties culture with enough residual forties flair to make it a terrific film, not the least for exceptional performances by Margaret Sullavan and the rest of the cast.

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Director: Robert Aldrich                              Writers: Nunnally Johnson & Lukas Heller
Film Score: Frank De Vol                           Cinematography: Edward Scaife
Starring: Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes and Ernest Borgnine

In the late sixties and early seventies there were a number of war films produced that contained a healthy element of comedy as well as drama. Films like Kelley’s Heroes and M*A*S*H were attempts to take some of the edge off of the Vietnam War then in progress and being paraded nightly across television screens. But it was Hollywood veteran Robert Aldrich who made the first entry into the genre with The Dirty Dozen, based on the novel by E.M. Nathanson. It’s a terrific premise, with a clandestine special force made up of army convicts set to die, given one last chance to redeem themselves by going into battle behind the front lines on the evening before the D-Day assault in Normandy. The film sports an all-star cast, many of whom were little known at the time and later went on to distinguished careers. MGM offered the lead role of Major Reisman to John Wayne, but fortunately for Aldrich he turned it down to make The Green Berets instead. Aldrich had his heart set on Lee Marvin from the beginning and the lanky actor, who had alternated between television and motion pictures for most of his career, anchored the cast of this iconic film and became identified with the role for the rest of his life.

The story begins in a U.S. Army prison in England. Lee Marvin has been sent there to observe a hanging. When he reports back to the general, Ernest Borgnine, and his angry subordinate general, Robert Webber, his insolence becomes apparent. He is given an order to train twelve of the convicts for a special mission and has to sell the idea to twelve lucky “volunteers.” The group consists of, among others, Donald Sutherland, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas and John Cassavetes, who was nominated for an Oscar. Once they realize they will be getting out of prison--though they are likely to die during the mission--they gladly agree. The problem for Marvin is that they hate each other almost as much as they hate him, and getting them to work together is nearly impossible. He’s assisted by a sergeant, Richard Jaeckel, and when the men refuse to shave, Marvin takes away their soap and Jaeckel christens them “The Dirty Dozen.” During their training there are several episodes that test their mettle. The parachute training facility is run by Marvin’s sworn enemy, Robert Ryan, and Ryan tries to beat out of the men what their mission is. They, of course, believe that Marvin is responsible, but later when Ryan invades their camp while Marvin isn’t there, they bond even closer with him.

Things finally come to a head when Marvin is dragged before Borgnine by Ryan and threatened with losing the operation. With the help of fellow major George Kennedy, he makes a bet with Borgnine that he can take over Ryan’s headquarters during the war games coming up. The way they manage it is terrific, and cements the bond between the men and paves the way for their ultimate mission. And the mission itself is as suspenseful as they get. Aldrich has a terrific visual style that is apparent in almost every scene. Whether it is shooting from the ground or from directly overhead, there is always some interesting visual angle to go along with the story itself. And the story is a long one. Epic in scope, Aldrich is following on the tails of World War Two films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape in the film’s two hour and ten minute running time. Frank De Vol’s appropriately martial sounding score, while not exactly memorable, provides a perfect background for the action. The allegory for the Vietnam War is obvious. It was the first war where draftees, en mas, ran for cover by staying in college or the national guard or, in extreme case, fleeing to Canada, leaving the ranks of the Army primarily soldiered by low income men or minorities--in many cases both. But when it came time to perform they were as good--if not better because of their backgrounds--than career soldiers.

The other members of “the dozen” are less well known today. Clint Walker becomes pals with Bronson in the picture, while singer Trini López becomes the first to die on the mission. Frank Sinatra apparently pushed him to leave halfway through the production, believing that his singing career would go into decline if he stayed away from the U.S. too long, so his character was simply killed off. Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Stuart Cooper, Colin Maitland and Al Mancini round out the rest of the dozen. At the time it was released, the film was criticized primarily for its portrayal of extreme violence, but Altman was adamant that the realism of war justified its inclusion. In fact, Aldrich was surreptitiously offered an Academy Award nomination if he would cut the final scene in which Jim Brown throws grenades into the air vents at the chateau. Ostensibly it was because of the violent nature of the scene. In reality it was because of the distaste of seeing a black man kill whites--even if they were Nazis. Fortunately, the film survived intact and has become one of the greatest war films ever produced in Hollywood. In addition to Cassavetes, the film was nominated for three other technical awards and won the Oscar for sound effects. It spawned a television sequel starring Lee Marvin, and two others with Telly Savalas leading the group. The Dirty Dozen has it all, sex, violence, action, drama and humor, and puts them all together in one of the most entertaining war films ever made.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Werewolf of London (1935)

Director: Stuart Walker                              Writer: John Colton
Film Score: Karl Hajos                              Cinematography: Charles J. Stumar
Starring: Henry Hull, Valerie Hobson, Warner Oland and Lester Matthews

This film had a long and arduous genesis, beginning first as a story for Boris Karloff to follow up his success in Frankenstein. Eventually the idea passed through the hands of several writers before John Colton’s version was green-lighted. Director Stuart Walker is not a well-known name because he died in 1941 at the age of fifty-three. Werewolf of London was his second to last film and came on the heels of a pair of Charles Dickens adaptations for Universal, Great Expectations with Henry Hull and The Mystery of Edwin Drood with Claude Rains. The commercial failure of the film at the time of release was probably due to its marked similarity to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Less of a monster movie, the story focuses on the scientific research of Henry Hull, whose obsessions are the real cause of his doom. He neglects his wife, nearly pushing her into the arms of her former lover, and yet is furious with them when he thinks about them being together. At the same time his is angry towards his colleague, when if they had worked together they might have been able to invent a cure. In the end, it is the scientist’s own hubris that ends his life, almost identical the Robert Louis Stevenson story.

The film opens in Tibet, in the middle of an expedition. The camera follows two of the crew to the tent of Henry Hull. The natives do not want to go where Hull is heading, and when priest Egon Brecher comes through the pass the natives scatter in fear. Hull is looking for a rare plant that only blooms in the moonlight, and Brecher tells him he should not seek it, but wishes him luck as he goes anyway. Once Hull finds the flower, however, he is attacked by a man who looks like a beast and is bitten before he can fend him off. But he gets his flower and returns it to England safely. There his neglected wife, Valerie Hobson, is throwing a party and one of the guests is the mysterious Warner Oland. After Oland tells him that they are both werewolves, Hull ignores him and goes about his work until he sees his artificial moonlight has a curious effect on him, causing hair to sprout from his hand. The Tibetian flower, however, is the antidote to the symptoms, but Oland steals the blossoms, leaving Hull helpless to the curse. After the change he instinctively heads for his wife, but foiled there he kills an anonymous woman in the streets. This leads to the inevitable battle between the two werewolves over the remaining blossoms of the flower.

The most obvious impediment for the film to overcome is the screenplay. It is full of obvious references to men and beasts and stilted dialogue, especially when it comes to the jealousy of Hull toward Lester Matthews. The thing is, it’s not a bad story, but the execution is poorly done, in particular the way any suspense about Oland being the original werewolf is given away in the beginning of the film. The actor tells Hull that they met briefly in Tibet, in the dark, and turned him into a werewolf. This is one of many aspects of the film that The Wolf Man would greatly improve upon later. Though the screenplay may have failed him, Stuart Walker has a distinctive style and makes full use of the moving camera to great effect, first in the opening as he tracks the men to Hull’s tent, and later throughout the rest of the film. The technique is a vital one for his unique transition scene as Hull turns into a werewolf. Walker tracks the actor as he walks behind a series of columns. When Hull is behind a column the camera stops and makeup is applied, then the camera rolls again. Though it’s obvious on film, it is still a terrific sequence and one of the high points of the film. The other high point is the music by Karl Hajos, which adds another artistic dimension to a somewhat flat film.

What’s fascinating in watching the film is how similar it is to Stevenson’s novel. The overt sexual overtones of Mr. Hyde are nakedly on display in the film, as he attacks only women. While the trigger for Hull’s transformation seems to be the moon, the jealousy he exhibits toward his wife’s former lover appears just as powerful, and his rage propels him forward. And in the same way that Hyde finds himself an outcast in a society with rigid rules of conduct regarding sexual expression, the juxtaposition of Hull’s animal nature with the civilization he is trapped in is presented in the stark visual symbolism of him donning his hat and coat after the transformation. Hull’s performance has been criticized for his seeming distaste for the part, and along with Valerie Hobson’s stereotyped role they combine to weaken the narrative. Ironically, Warner Oland is the actor who appears most invested in the film. The only other actors of note in the picture are the wonderful Spring Byington as Hobson’s aunt, used for comic relief, and Hull’s lab assistant, J.M. Kerrigan. While it lacks the artistry and magic of The Wolf Man from six years later, Werewolf of London nevertheless holds an important place in the pantheon of Universal monster films as the first werewolf film produced in the sound era.

The Blind Side (2009)

Director: John Lee Hancock                            Writer: John Lee Hancock
Film Score: Carter Burwell                              Cinematography: Alar Kivilo
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Tim McGraw and Kim Dickens

There’s something about these kinds of films that doesn’t sit well with me. First of all, I certainly enjoy watching them. After all, who wouldn’t? The true story of a young person who defies the odds and becomes a success with the aid of selfless people helping him is incredibly inspiring. When all is said and done, however, I’m left feeling empty inside. While the story is good, there is an overt sentimentality that makes the plot a little too obvious for this to be a really great film. The Blind Side is a semi-biographical tale of an inner-city boy from Memphis named Michael Oher who went on to play football at the University of Mississippi and eventually the NFL. The film is based on the book by Michael Lewis called The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. In the book he weaves two narrative threads together, the first about Lawrence Taylor, who made the necessity of protecting the quarterback’s blind side a priority after breaking Joe Theismann’s leg. The second is the story of Oher. Sandra Bullock begins the film with a narration of Lewis’s first point, punctuated by the footage of Theismann and Taylor in a Monday night game, the last of Theismann’s career.

Oher is played by Quinton Aaron in his first film role. The story begins with Aaron as a homeless boy living on the couch of his friend’s family. Omar Dorsey visits Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis in order to get his son in because of his sports abilities, but when coach Ray McKinnon sees Aaron’s enormous size and quickness on the basketball court he wants him to attend the school as well. With no continuity in school or academic success, Aaron’s grades are virtually nonexistent, but with McKinnon pushing he gets him enrolled. There he makes friends with the tiny boy, Jae Head, and eventually draws the notice of his mother, a rich Memphis socialite played by Sandra Bullock. She brings the boy into their home and her husband, Tim McGraw, daughter Lily Collins, and Head, make an instant family for Aaron. At first Aaron’s participation in football is simply an obvious one because of his size, but McKinnon notices something different about the boy. While most neglected kids display a repressed anger once they get on the football field, this is utterly absent from Aaron. What Bullock knows, however, is that Aaron is in the ninetieth percentile for protective instinct, and when she gives him the goal of protecting his quarterback, suddenly Aaron becomes great.

The rest of the film, I hate to say, is an obvious progression of attempting to help Aaron become successful and combating racism. He struggles in his first football games, and then gradually becomes an all-state tackle. He needs to get his grades up in order to be eligible to play college ball and Kathy Bates is brought in to tutor him, with obvious results. Later, young Jae Head becomes his virtual agent when the parade of college coaches comes to his door. Through it all the bond between Bullock and Aaron becomes closer and, just to throw in a bit of suspense, the NCAA investigates why he decides to go to Old Miss, suspecting that Bullock is simply using her altruism to field players for her old alma matter. Nevertheless, the film is an obvious favorite for its uplifting message and was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. The only other nomination was for Bullock as best actress and she won over an incredibly weak field that year. For anyone who has seen films like Rudy or We Are Marshall, you’ll have a good idea of what this film is. That is not to denigrate the story of Michael Oher, who is still playing professional ball in his home state of Tennessee, but The Blind Side is a film that fits into that inspirational, if predictable, genre of sports stories that has become prevalent in recent years. I very much enjoyed the story, but the film as a film . . . not so much.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Bull Durham (1988)

Director: Ron Shelton                                      Writer: Ron Shelton
Film Score: Michael Convertino                      Cinematography: Bobby Byrne
Starring: Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Trey Wilson

The first of Kevin Costner’s baseball trilogy, Bull Durham is a romantic comedy rather than the more serious pictures that followed it, Field of Dreams and For the Love of the Game. But the film is also notable for being the picture in which Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins met and began a relationship that lasted twenty years and produced two children. The film was written and directed by Ron Shelton who had written a couple of films prior to this, but his was his first job as a director. The chemistry with his star worked out well, and in the following decade he would team up with Costner again for another sports-related romantic comedy, Tin Cup. Costner has done particularly well in these films because of his natural athleticism, and that was the primary reason that Shelton cast him. The film was a surprise hit, as sports films in general were not very popular at the time. Shelton had been a minor league baseball player and used his experience when writing the screenplay. But the romantic angle is also very well done and holds up today, as well as the buddy-picture antagonism between Costner and Robbins. The film touches a number of cinematic tropes and does all of them very well, resulting in its continuing popularity.

The film begins with Durham, North Carolina’s triple-A baseball team, the Bulls, getting a new pitcher, Tim Robbins, a hot young prospect who signed a hundred thousand dollar signing bonus. He has a thunderbolt for an arm, but is immature and has no control on the mound. Enter Kevin Costner, a veteran catcher that the team hired to teach Robbins and get him ready for the majors. At the same time local baseball fan Susan Sarandon has her own spring training, which involves selecting a player to have an affair with for the season. She brings both Robbins and Costner over to her house, but when Costner figures out what’s going on he refuses, saying that after ten years in the minor leagues he doesn’t try out any more. But while Sarandon hooks up with Robbins for the season, there is plenty of sexual tension between her and Costner. Meanwhile, the baseball season marches on with its ups and downs, winning and losing streaks, as well as the drama that happens off the field with Sarandon’s best friend, the promiscuous Jenny Robertson who is working her way through the entire team. The late, great Trey Wilson plays the harried manager who relies on Costner to lead the team, and the wonderfully comedic Robert Wuhl plays the goofy pitching coach.

Kevin Costner is a great choice for the lead because of his obvious athletic ability. What’s a little more of a stretch is Tim Robbins. Even though he played hockey when he was younger, he does look a bit awkward on the pitcher’s mound. But it was his breakout role and he plays the part well. The rest of the baseball cast was chosen from actual athletes and director Ron Shelton was a stickler for authenticity on the field by completing plays after the camera stopped rolling. Costner even hit a couple of actual home runs during the filming. Susan Sarandon is lovely as the older woman and, though she and Robbins began their off screen romance during shooting, she works very well with Costner and the two are terrific together. It’s hard to believe that this was Shelton’s first film. His scenes are well composed, and the baseball montages look as if they had been shot by a veteran. One of the other aspects of the film that is tremendous is the music by little known composer Michael Convertino. He does a great job of scoring, and integrates it perfectly with the eclectic mix of soundtrack songs. The comedy in the piece is also very natural and unfolds in an unforced way. There is a lot to like about Bull Durham and it’s popularity with fans through the years and frequent rotation on cable attest to that. It’s a great romantic comedy that does not depend on knowledge of sports to be enjoyed.

Cement Suitcase (2013)

Director: Rick Castañeda                                Writer: Rick Castañeda
Film Score: Nick Jaina                                    Cinematography: Jeffrey Waldron
Starring: Dwayne Bartholomew, Kristina Guerrero, Nathan Sapsford and Shawn Parsons

My interest in Cement Suitcase was twofold. First, I have been so impressed with independent films coming out of Portland, Oregon that I wanted to check out what was happening in the Seattle film scene. The second was the setting. One of my favorite films is Sideways, a comedy set in California’s central coast wine region. Likewise, this film is set in Washington wine country, an area of the state that I am particularly familiar with. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this film as much as I would have liked. Writer-director Rick Castañeda does, however, have some fine moments of comedy in the film and that keeps it from being a complete loss. One of the things he wanted to do with the project was showcase a little-filmed area of Washington State, the Yakima Valley, and that is probably the most impressive aspect of the film. The landscapes are incredibly beautiful. But Castañeda also uses some animated sequences in the film that are interesting and has a nice directorial touch. It’s the director’s first feature film and, in some respects, it shows. And while it fails to impress overall, there are still plenty of good things in it that keep it from being a failure.

The film begins with Dwayne Bartholomew going up onstage in front of an empty house in an auditorium, but before he can speak he wakes up from his dream. In the first-person narrative he tells of his sad life in Granger, Washington as a wine pourer at the Airfield Winery in Prosser. He lives in a modest house that used to be his mother’s. He’s cleared out her room to make room for a boarder so that he can pay the mortgage, which is way overdue, but the only applicant is Australian Nathan Sapsford, whom he takes an instant dislike to. One day at the winery Shawn Parsons strikes up a conversation and asks him to play golf sometime, the only problem is that his girlfriend, Kristina Guerrero, is having an affair with him and he doesn’t know how to feel about it. To say that Dwayne’s life is in a rut is an understatement. In a brief bit of animation his life is compared to a river that erodes into the earth over time, with himself at the bottom of the canyon. Finally he relents to Sapsford because he has money and is willing to pay in advance. All that said, however, it’s only then that things really begin going bad.

While the plot actually sounds pretty interesting, the film as a whole is surprisingly tepid. For one thing, the twenty-something loser who is more interested in playing video games than improving his life, still living at home--albeit his mother is dead—has very little originality to it. Writer-director Rick Castañeda wrings about the most he can from the premise, but being so weak to begin with doesn’t give him a lot of room to maneuver. Dwayne Bartholomew at first seems like a poor choice for the lead, but he warms to the role. And while he is a comic actor, he manages to keep things very believable rather than going overboard the way most Hollywood comedies tend to do. The best actor in the film is, ironically, Shawn Parsons, who is playing a stereotyped character but manages to imbue it with a strong sense of reality as well. Overall, though, the acting throughout the film is pretty good. Castañeda is also a terrific creative force and he definitely has some skills. His work behind the camera is very confident. Some of the running visual gags are a “For Rent” sign that keeps falling down, and Bartholomew’s beat up car, but there are also some very clever moments in the writing as well. The first-person narration is a bit awkward because it feels like it should have been used a bit more or not at all. Cement Suitcase may not be a great film, but it is a valiant effort by a young filmmaker that promises much more in the future.

Shockproof (1949)

Director: Douglas Sirk                                      Writers: Samuel Fuller & Helen Deutsch
Film Score: George Duning                              Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr.
Starring: Cornel Wilde, Patricia Knight, John Baragrey and Esther Minicotti

Shockproof is the last film that Sam Fuller would write before striking out on his own to begin directing independent films. The impetus was the direction of the film by Douglas Sirk, though the film’s lack of cohesion and success was probably due more to Columbia’s demand that the screenplay be rewritten by Helen Deutsch. The result is an extremely bipolar film that emphasizes both the lurid film noir aspects that were present in Fuller’s original screenplay and the sentimental rewrite by Deutsch. Cornel Wilde is the nominal lead in the picture, and had earned his film noir credentials two years earlier in Leave Her to Heaven for Fox. The other lead, Patricia Knight, had a brief career in Hollywood, and what films she did appear in were mostly due to the influence of her husband, Wilde, who married her during the shooting of this film. Her initial scenes, it must be pointed out, are quite good, and the femme fatale characterization of her in the screenplay is tremendously suspenseful during the first half of the film. While Shockproof does have its moments, it’s a dim reflection of the work that Cornel Wilde did with Gene Tierney, and with all of the edges softened by the rewrite of Fuller’s script it couldn’t help but be a disappointment.

The film begins with Patricia Knight walking through Hollywood. She buys a new dress, has her hair dyed blonde, and goes into an office building to see Cornel Wilde. It turns out he’s her parole officer, and she’s on parole for murder. Her long list of don’ts include staying away from her former lover, John Baragrey, but of course the first thing she does is meet with him and get picked up in a raid. King Donovan chooses to jump to his death rather than go back to prison and Knight wishes she had the nerve to do the same thing. Wilde’s boss wants him to send her back to prison, but he decides to give her another chance--as long as Baragrey stays away from her. To make it easier, Wilde gives Knight a job in his own home taking care of his blind mother, Esther Minicotti, but all the while Knight is working behind his back with Baragrey to get her transferred to San Francisco. It’s not until Wilde proposes to her that Knight realizes she doesn’t want to be with Baragrey anymore, but her old flame wants to use the marriage--a violation of parole--to control him through extortion by threatening to destroy his career by exposing it.

Up to that point the film has a lot of potential, but the whole thing takes a much more romantic turn for the rest of its running time. Even the dark and gritty ending, which contains the most noirish aspects of the film, is tempered by Douglas Sirk’s penchant for the romantic. But this didn’t have to spell doom for the picture. In many ways the ending is reminiscent of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, the novel rather than any of the filmed versions. While Hollywood was able to adapt Cain for the screen in the forties, they stayed miles away from his original conceptions of the protagonists in his novels, and that would have been the only way to really save this story. Fuller wasn’t the only one unhappy with the film, however, as the final scene wasn’t even shot by him. Sirk left Hollywood and headed to Europe for a year before returning to helm his better-known fifties films. The other low point in the film is the dreary score by George Duning which is more appropriate for the sappy romances that Sirk would film in the following decade than the gritty noir picture that Fuller was aiming for. These days the film is known primarily for its terrific location shooting in Los Angeles and the rich black and white photography by Charles Lawton Jr. who had shot Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai for Columbia. Shockproof, while not a success, is nevertheless an interesting piece of work from two iconic Hollywood filmmakers.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Touchy Feely (2013)

Director: Lynn Shelton                                      Writer: Lynn Shelton
Film Score: Vince Smith                                   Cinematography: Benjamin Kasulke
Starring: Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais, Ellen Page and Allison Janney

Seattle writer-director Lynn Shelton has made a name for herself in independent films circles producing small, personal films that have also managed to gain a popular following. Touchy Feely is one of her later efforts and is something of a love letter to Seattle, taking on the eccentric nature of some of the community in a generous and thoughtful way, one that eschews stereotypes for well-rounded characters who, while a bit nutty, are still very believable. The film opens with massage therapist Rosemarie DeWitt working on a patient while the credits roll. At the end of the session her very satisfied customer says, “Will you marry me?” That evening she attends a dinner party at the home of her brother, Josh Pais, a dentist with a small practice that is slowly dwindling away because he can’t attract new clients. Pais is something of an autistic whose favorite place is in the x-ray lab at his office with the lights out. Living with him is his daughter, Ellen Page, who also works as an assistant at her father’s office and feels trapped into taking care of him rather than going to college and beginning her own life. Also at the dinner is DeWitt’s boyfriend, Scoot McNairy, who owns a bicycle shop in town.

The dinner is incredibly awkward but the characters don’t really react to it that way because it seems expected to them. DeWitt is looking for a new apartment, and when McNairy says she should move in with him, she finally agrees. The next day she visits her Reiki practitioner, Allison Janney, and everything is great. DeWitt, however, is visibly frightened to move in with McNairy and Janney, rather than advocating caution, tells her to go for it. But the next day at work, DeWitt suddenly becomes repulsed by her own skin and that of her clients and finally shuts down her office. Meanwhile Pais, who has almost no bedside manner with his patients, is simply cleaning the teeth of one of Page’s friends and miraculous cures his TMJ. Suddenly, instead of an empty waiting room, word of mouth has filled it up. DeWitt can’t get over her fears, though, and believes she needs to break things off with McNairy. But throughout the shots with her traveling around town Ron Livingston can be seen in the background, adding a mysterious dimension to the film. From there, things evolve in a surprising way that by the end makes perfect sense. While the film’s screenplay seems to revolve around DeWitt, it’s Pais who really commands the attention of the viewer.

The one thing that is immediately apparent about the film has nothing to do with the plot or characters. Lynn Shelton and her cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke inject the film with a tremendous number of shots of Seattle, both at night and in the daylight, that are carefully composed and keep the context of the film forward in the viewer’s mind. There are also a number of nature shots, still within the city, the image of which project the idea of Japanese nature paintings. Once scene in particular, when DeWitt is walking around the neighborhood, is striking in its close-ups of moss and insects and cracks in the sidewalk. There are also some close-ups of skin when DeWitt is going through her crisis that are striking as well. The criticism of the film is a bit incomprehensible to me, especially those who find the ending lacking resolution. It works as a character study, and yet has a compelling plot as well, and the actors are terrific. Perhaps you have to be familiar with the Northwest to completely fall in love with the film, but certainly doesn’t seem as though it should be a prerequisite. Nominated for a Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Touchy Feely exhibits a bold confidence from its director that translates into a tremendous viewing experience. I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who loves independent films. It’s one of the best.