Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Grey (2011)

Director: Joe Carnahan                                  Writers: Joe Carnahan & Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Film Score: Marc Streitenfeld                         Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Starring: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney and Dallas Roberts

While for some the underlying thematic elements of this movie might seem corny, they ultimately feel ingenious, and it’s one of the better things about it. The Grey is an intense survival film about a group of men lost in the Arctic wilderness. But at the same time that they are fighting off attacks from a pack of wolves, the men themselves are also defining their roles within their own “pack” and must determine who is the natural alpha male of the group. And just like when younger wolves challenge the current alpha in the pack, some of the men want to take the leadership role away from Neeson, but it’s always to their detriment. The other thematic element is an existential nihilism professed by Frank Grillo and agreed with by Neeson. It would be nice to believe in some kind of divine presence in a situation like that, but the reality is it’s exactly the fairy tale that Grillo says it is. The screenplay was written by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers from his story “Ghost Walker,” and assisted by director Joe Carnahan. The director had helmed some fairly pedestrian action films prior to this, but with Jeffers onboard he came up with a terrific story and produced a very good film.

The film begins in the north of Alaska, on an oil company job site maintaining a pipeline. Liam Neeson plays a hired killer . . . of wolves. It’s is job to go out with the teams during the winter, when food is scarce, and protect them from wolf attacks. As the film opens he walks into a rough and rowdy bar at the site, but seems to notice nothing, deep in the world of his own thoughts of his beautiful wife, who has apparently left him. The voice-over is a letter to her. He takes a drink, leaves, and when he gets to a remote place on the site, prepares to shoot himself. But he stops when he hears a wolf howl in the distance. The next day he boards a plane with a group of other men heading for Anchorage. Joe Anderson plops down next to him, his mouth running constantly, and when Neeson tells him he doesn’t want to talk he’s made his first enemy. An hour later, while most of the passengers are asleep, the plane goes down. Neeson, who was thrown out before the crash, awakes from the trauma and walks back to the wreckage to find out who else is left alive. Seven others are, initially, but James Badge Dale dies right away from his wounds. From then on it’s the wolves who pose the biggest threat as they begin to pick off the weakest men one by one.

Frank Grillo is the first to challenge Neeson’s authority, but Neeson simply shrugs and says he’s heading for the trees and if anyone wants to come along they can. Grillo bristles, but stays with the group. That night in the trees, however, he threatens Neeson and gets taken down by the true leader. Others in the group include Dermot Mulroney and Dallas Roberts who struggle to stay one step ahead of the wolves. The setting is bleak, hundreds of miles from any kind of civilization, and one of the vital aspects of the film’s success is the sound effects and sound editing. The sound of the wind as it whistles across landscape, kicking up snow like dust and whiting out everything, is omnipresent. And when the men finally make it to the trees, it’s the sound of the wolves howling in the dark, moving around, and growling that are the real fear producing elements. Visual effects are also important, as there are very few actual wolves in the film in order to avoid difficulties with treatment to the animals. The wolves in long shot are obviously real, but the ones in close up are incredibly good replicas by the effects department and used sparingly. In that context the sound effects are even more important.

Joe Carnahan has a very strong vision and his close work with Jeffers makes for a very good film. It also doesn’t hurt to have Ridley Scott as the producer. The brief scenes with Neeson and his wife, Anne Openshaw, when he is ripped out of his dreams by the plane crash, are really great in the way that they jolt him back to reality. Unlike the Taken films or others of their kind, Liam Neeson displays a real vulnerability here that is refreshing. The rest of the actors are relatively unknown, however, and even those who aren’t are buried under a weeks’ worth of whiskers which sort of masks their identity, and that adds to the realism of the film as well. There’s some debate among fans about the ending, but there’s really nothing controversial about it. The obvious ending is the ending, something confirmed by Carnahan in the audio commentary, and the final shot after the credits are finish doesn’t change that, but only serves to reinforce it. The Grey is a solid character study of men in the wilderness fighting not only against the elements but against predators with overwhelming odds, and has a symbolic subtext that lifts it above the average thriller by a wide margin.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Blade Runner (1982)

Director: Ridley Scott                                     Writer: Hampton Fancher & David Peoples
Film Score: Vangelis                                      Cinematography: Jordan Cronenweth
Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young and Edward James Olmos

This is one of those instances--and there are getting to be quite a few now--where the director’s cut just doesn’t work. Blade Runner, in its original theatrical release, was a terrific sci-fi noir film complete with first person narration by Harrison Ford, a cigarette-smoking femme fatale in Sean Young, and even a neo-noir film score by Vangelis. Scott went back to the film later and attempted to turn it into a science-fiction action thriller and in the process gutted everything that was great about the film. In Ridley Scott’s new cut Ford walks around like a zombie and the audience has no idea what he’s thinking. And even though there wasn’t a lot of voiceover to remove, it does make a significant difference in the way that the film is perceived by the audience, especially with his change to the ending. While many people, including the director, want to believe that the changes made to the film imply that Ford’s character is not what the audience thinks he is, the discussions Ford had with Scott on the set at the time of filming and the implication of the original theatrical cut, I believe, are definitive.

The film opens with text telling the audience that early in the twenty-first century genetic androids called Replicants were created to provide labor off planet. But when they rebelled the androids were outlawed and policemen called blade runners were called on to terminate any still on the planet. The visuals open on a futuristic version of Los Angeles in the year 2019. Flying cars dot the sky above the city and buildings like circuit boards fill the land. In one of the buildings Brion James is interrogated by Morgan Paull and winds up killing him, confirming that he’s a Replicant. Next, M. Emmet Walsh has Harrison Ford brought in by Edward James Olmos to go after a group of Replicans that have recently landed on Earth. But Ford has been out of the business for a while and goes to the corporate headquarters where the Replicants are made. There he meets the head scientist, Joe Turkel, and his latest model, Sean Young, who has been implanted with memories in order to keep her from discovering she’s an android. After that, Ford begins tracking James in the hopes that he will lead him to the ringleader of the group, Rutger Hauer.

Hauer’s goal is simple. Replicants have a four-year life span and he needs to get to Turkel in order to extend that. Meanwhile Young has run away after Ford cruelly proved to her that she is, in fact, a Replicant. Harrison Ford had just come off of a hugely successful project in The Raiders of the Lost Ark, and while there are certain stylistic similarities in his performance here, it also looks forward to his mature period that really begins with Witness. Sean Young is the other lead in the cast and she does a very good job playing the Replicant who desires to live as a human. It’s unfortunate that the rest of her career never lived up to this early promise. Rutger Hauer has always considered this his best film, and for obvious reasons. He really has an outstanding performance, icy and cold, and yet emotionally innocent. The rest of the cast has fairly small roles, including a very odd one by James Edward Olmos as another blade runner who would like Ford to retire, and M. Emmet Walsh whose racist cop is difficult to judge in terms of his trustworthiness.

Ridley Scott’s vision is an interesting one. The film is based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, but the title is taken from a different novel, The Bladerunner by Alan E. Nourse. He begins with the idea that most of the wealthy have left the Earth, leaving L.A. to Asians and Hispanics and those who live in the expensive high-rise buildings above the decay. In fact, Ford takes the job to go after the Replicants in part because Walsh reminds him that if he’s not a cop he’ll be nothing. The philosophical underpinning of the film is the whole question of what it means to be human. There are those who argue that the Replicants are every bit as human as the real thing, but it’s an argument that lacks persuasion. The four-year life span, the lack of emotional depth, and the fact that they have no real life, actually works against the idea. Much more interesting to consider is how humans live their lives in a way that makes them less than human, in a sense wasting what they have been given. In the end, assessing Blade Runner accurately depends upon the version. The original theatrical version from 1982, apparently only available on videotape from that year--I got mine on eBay--is a terrific film. The director’s cut, on the other hand, I really couldn’t recommend.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

FM (1978)

Director: John A. Alonzo                                Writer: Ezra Sacks
Music: Steely Dan                                          Cinematography: David Myers
Starring: Michael Brandon, Cassie Yates, Eileen Brennan and Martin Mull

FM is the quintessential seventies film. It has it all, sex, drugs and rock and roll, and is set to a soundtrack that became the compilation album of the late seventies. The ultimate irony of the film is that it was also the purest example of the exact kind of corporate cynicism that the film purportedly attempted to expose. Even the title song of the film, provided by the anti-corporate duo Steely Dan, is a not-so-subtle dig at the FM airwaves that played “nothing but blues and Elvis and somebody else’s favorite song,” free from any kind of controversy, “no static at all,” and yet was one of that radio frequency’s biggest hits that year and made even more money for their corporate patrons. But the ultimate sell-out was that the film became the obvious basis for one of the most popular and insipid sit-coms of the seventies, WKRP in Cincinnati, though the producers tried to claim otherwise. Still, the film itself evokes a simpler time with simpler music and a clearer distinction between the corporate world that was just beginning to stretch its tentacles into the everyday lives of consumers and a culture that still seemed as if it had a choice about whether or not to submit to the full immersion that was coming down the road.

The film begins in the early morning at an L.A. radio station, QSKY, with DJ Cleavon Little about to head home. However his relief, Michael Brandon, is still at home and Little gives him exactly one song, “Life in the Fast Lane,” to get to the studio before there’s nothing but dead air going out over the airwaves. Of course, he just makes it. At a staff meeting later in the day, he tells the other DJs that the corporation that owns the station is sending in a new sales manager to get big accounts and run lots of commercials. The station has always prided itself on catering to their audience with minimal commercials and sees a conflict coming. Meanwhile their other conflict is with the giant commercial station in town, KLAX, who is putting on a Linda Ronstadt concert. Brandon plans on hijacking the concert and broadcasting it live without the other station knowing. In the meantime he has a DJ, Alex Karas, who isn’t doing a good job, and a studio tech, Jay Fenichel, who wants to be a DJ, and the over sexed DJ Martin Mull who has a nervous breakdown in the studio and barricades himself in. And this is in addition to advertising exec Tom Tarpey who descends on the station to fill the airwaves with commercials from the U.S. Army, the last sponsor the station would want to advertise.

The film is standard seventies fare, but even so there’s a lot to like about it. There is a personal appearance at Tower Records--remember them?-- with REO Speedwagon and an interview in the station with Tom Petty. There are also two concert sections, the first featuring Jimmy Buffet and the second with Linda Ronstadt, including a song that’s not on the soundtrack album. This is Martin Mull’s first film performance and he does a terrific job with the kind of egotistical character he would become associated with throughout his career. The on-air breakdown is brilliant, especially the ending with Michael Brandon. Clevon Little, who opens the film, unfortunately has little else to do for the remainder of the picture. Alex Karas as the cowboy DJ Doc Holiday does a nice job up until he’s forced into the clichéd role of gun toting sad sack. Eileen Brenan is great in her brief appearances as the sultry Mother, tucking everyone into bed on the night shift but unfulfilled in her work. And it’s great to see Tom Tarpey, who would have a brief but memorable role in Albert Brooks’ Lost in America. Michael Brandon holds down the center in a film full of eccentrics, and Cassie Yates is solid in support as his fellow DJ and girlfriend.

The best part of the film for most of the running time is the verisimilitude. The station feels like a real radio station and the way that the music is dubbed in with a lot of echo adds to that effect. The exteriors outside the studio in the daylight, like when Brandon is driving to work, are also good. The problem comes at the end of the film, with the standoff. At that point the exteriors become a very obvious studio set and even the presence of the great Norman Lloyd as the owner of the station can’t save it, especially with his fake Southern accent. Director John Alonzo had been a television actor during the sixties before moving into cinematography in the early seventies, where he was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Chinatown. This was his first feature film and he only directed a few TV movies after this before returning to the camera. This is not a great film, but it has something that few other later films ever achieved. Films like Dazed and Confused attempt to capture the seventies with limited success. FM is a slice out of time that takes back those of us who lived it in a way that modern recreations could never do. And the music is incomparable.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

City Streets (1931)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian                           Writers: Max Marcin & Oliver H.P. Barrett
Music: Karl Hajos                                             Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Starring: Gary Cooper, Sylvia Sidney, Paul Lukas and William Boyd

City Streets is adapted from a story that the great crime writer Dashiell Hammett wrote for Paramount Pictures, and the first of his works to be filmed. The story seems a bit pedestrian during the first half, but the ending is terrific if a bit unbelievable. Hammett’s original title was “The Kiss-Off” and was about teenagers who get caught up in the rackets and can’t get out. Screenwriters Max Marcin & Oliver H.P. Barrett changed the teens to young adults, and the studio cast Gary Cooper and Clara Bow in the leads. But after Bow’s breakdown director Rouben Mamoulian suggested Sylvia Sidney as he had seen her work in New York. This was only Rouben Mamoulian’s second film as a director, and he went right from this into Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Frederick March in his Oscar winning performance. While the studio, as well as critics, had been impressed with his work on his previous film, Applause, the film was not popular with audiences and so the studio was not eager to give him another assignment and waited a year before offering him Hammett’s story.

The film begins, aptly enough, on the streets, with big trucks rolling through the city at night. What they’re moving is alcohol, during Prohibition. Paul Lukas is a mob boss who has set up a brewery in someone else’s territory. That boss pays Lukas in order to take over the brewery, and then Lukas has him killed and stays put. The button men work for one of Lukas’s lieutenants, Stanley Fields, and after his driver and bodyguard, Guy Kibbee, takes them back to Fields’ headquarters, Kibbee winks at Sylvia Sidney who is waiting in a drug store and she gets into the empty car and drives away. The next scene has Sidney at a carnival shooting gallery. The carney is Gary Cooper. He’s a crack shot and Sidney is dating him. She wants him to go into business with her stepfather, Kibbee, so they can have more money but he prefers an honest life even if it means being poor. It’s the only thing that comes between them. Meanwhile Lukas is having a dalliance with Fields’ girl and when he finds out and confronts his boss, Lukas tells Kibbee to kill him and take over his operations himself. Sidney assists by getting rid of Kibbee’s gun, but a cop follows her and she’s arrested.

Kibbee uses the situation to get Cooper to work for him by lying to him that it’s the only way they can get Sidney out, so he goes to work for Kibbee while Sidney goes to prison. Once inside, she learns that the mob doesn’t really protect its own and has a change of heart, but by then Cooper is in deep and she regrets ever getting him mixed up in the rackets. Sylvia Sidney was a tremendous talent, not only beautiful but a powerful actress. This was only her second film after leaving the stage for Hollywood, her first being the interesting Thru Different Eyes, which now exists only in its silent version. She would go to prison again later that year in Ladies of the Big House, and did some of her best work in the early thirties working for some great directors like Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor and Josef von Sternberg. Gary Cooper began his career making dozens of silent films, and just the previous year had starred in von Sternberg’s Morocco. Guy Kibbee lends solid support as the gangster’s new lieutenant, though Hungarian Paul Lukas still sounds way too much like Bela Lugosi. While it’s decent acting for the time, Sidney is the real standout.

One of the fascinating aspects of the film is how Mamoulian emphasizes images of water or liquid. The city streets in the opening are wet with rain, glasses are filled with alcohol, a vat of beer is being filled in the brewery, a mobster drowned in the river, and Sidney and Cooper talking at the beach with the ocean waves breaking behind them. He was assisted behind the camera by one of the most innovative cinematographers in the business at the time, Lee Garmes, and the photography is excellent, whether it’s his lighting at the beach at night or tracking shots along the street following Sylvia Sidney. Mamoulian also uses some strong symbolism in the film, beginning with a canary in a cage to indicate Sidney being trapped by her stepfather. Cat figurines in Stanley Fields’ apartment indicate the ruthless murder of Fields by Kibbee, and the stuffed eagle in Paul Lukas’s apartment symbolizes his predatory behavior toward women. Though Rouben Mamoulian made relatively few films during his career, most of them are excellent. City Streets is a solid, if not terribly compelling, crime drama that benefits tremendously from confident direction and a terrific leady lady.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Director: Robert Benton                                  Writer: Robert Benton
Music: Herb Harris                                          Cinematography: Néstor Almendros
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander and Justin Henry

There’s a memorable moment in the film Tootsie when Dustin Hoffman, as Dorothy, is over at Jessica Lange’s apartment and is offered a glass of wine. He declines, saying he wants to stay sharp. But when the conversation turns to Lange’s daughter Hoffman asks if she is divorced and Lange replies that she’s never been married. Suddenly Hoffman reaches for the wine. It’s a small moment, but a significant one. I can remember feeling a shiver of scandal when I first saw that scene myself, just as Hoffman did. But times have changed and today it has very little impact on audiences. The same can be said for the whole of Kramer vs. Kramer, a film in which a woman leaves her husband and young son just as a man would do. It was something fairly shocking to consider in its day, but has since lost a lot of its moral impact. Nevertheless, it is a powerful film, but the impact has shifted to the courtroom where, despite the fact that the husband and son were abandoned, family courts makes their decisions on blanket recommendations meant to apply to all cases and seem to take none of the circumstances of specific cases into account before rendering their decisions. And that still is a scandal.

The film opens on the classic--though by now clichéd--image of Meryl Streep, red-rimmed eyes and haunted countenance, telling her sleeping boy, Justin Henry, that she loves him. Then she begins packing. At the same time her husband, Dustin Hoffman, is talking with his boss in the advertising office where he works. He knows he needs to get home but gets sidetracked walking home discussing business. Distracted, Hoffman practically ignores Streep when he gets home, that is until she walks out the door. He calls her best friend in the building, Jane Alexander, and then gets mad at her for not letting him know. But she isn’t having any of it. Still, Hoffman can’t believe Streep would leave her own son. The next morning is the iconic French toast scene. And when Hoffman burns his hand and drops the pan he doesn’t curse at the pan, or the situation, he curses Streep. Meanwhile Henry is obviously confused, and Hoffman’s boss is urging him to send his son to stay with relatives so that he can concentrate on work. Jane Alexander, ironically, becomes his best friend during this time, as she is divorced with kids as well. It’s not until over a year later that Streep returns to New York and shocks Hoffman by asking for Henry back, and the legal battle of the title occupies the last third of the film.

The story is really about Dustin Hoffman’s character. He goes from being a clueless career man, to an abandoned husband, and eventually a father. It’s a gradual transformation but one that is freighted with meaning. All along the way he has choices to make, but the one constant is his son. Despite suggestions by others that his life would be simpler without him, he quite simply cannot abandon his son. At first it’s out of spite, out of hatred toward Streep for what she has done. Then it’s out of simple stubbornness. In the office of George Coe he tells his boss that he’s a fighter, a survivor, and keeping Henry is one way to prove it. Eventually, however, the joys of simply being a father provide all of the motivation necessary and the choice he has made becomes about keeping his family together, even if it’s just the two of them. But the films greatness in general comes from the tremendous acting talent. In addition to Hoffman and Streep, Jane Alexander is arresting. She had been doing television work for a decade before this and went from here right into Brubaker with Robert Redford. The other incredible bit of casting was Justin Henry as the son. In the film he is simply one of the most believable child actors on the screen, and while his role is certainly manipulative of the audience it still rings true. George Coe and the venerable Howard Duff are also solid in supporting roles.

There are some very sophisticated touches in the film from writer-director Robert Benton. One is about midway through the film when Hoffman is in the office of Coe and being chewed out for not doing his job. The scene is shot with Hoffman full frame on the couch. Coe is pacing back and forth in front of him but his head is not visible on the screen. The association then, of Hoffman with his own son, is a powerful one and a subliminal foreshadow of what’s to come. The film also has a heavy parallelism, with certain scenes and shots repeated at the beginning and end of the film, including the French toast scene, or the shot of Streep in the elevator as the door closes. Benton has done relatively few films, but many of them have been important ones, including a couple late in Paul Newman’s career. He is also the winner of three Academy Awards, for both writing and direction in this film and for his screenplay for Places in the Heart. Hoffman and Streep both won Oscars and the film was the winner for best picture. In addition, the film earned four more nominations, including ones for Justin Henry and Jane Alexander. Kramer vs. Kramer is a memorable seventies film, a snapshot of the times and the kind of intimate story that you don’t see on the screen anymore.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Director: Roy William Neill                              Writers: Edward T. Lowe & W. Scott Darling
Film Score: Frank Skinner                              Cinematography: Lester White
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill and Dennis Hoey

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon was the fourth of the popular Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce series, and the second of the modern interpretation produced by Universal. Placing the great British detective in the middle of World War Two was popular with moviegoers because it was timely, but it also opened up all kinds of new possibilities for war-related mysteries. And, of course, they were much cheaper to produce than the Victorian era costume dramas would have been. This was also the first of the series directed by Roy William Neill, who would be the director for the rest of the series until his death in 1946. For fans of Universal’s horror films, he also has the distinction of directing the second in the Wolf Man series, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The idea for this picture was based on the Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” involving a cypher made up of stick figures in various positions that Holmes must decode. Other than that, the film owes nothing to the Doyle story. But the actual story was the basis for a 1923 short film featuring Eille Norwood as Holmes, as well as BBC television versions with Peter Cushing in 1968 and Jeremy Brett in 1984.

The film opens in a small, Swiss café. Two men at a table are meeting an old man who is selling books. In reality the old man is a German spy who is attempting to steal a new bombsight from a Swiss scientist. Both the scientist and the sight are in his house and they make arrangements to steal them both that night. Later, the old man is revealed to be Rathbone, and his deception enables him to smuggle the scientist, William Post Jr., out of the country to England. Post intends to give his bombsight to England and, while under the guard of Nigel Bruce, sneaks out to the home of his girlfriend, Kaaren Verne. He gives her a note, a piece of paper with the dancing men, to give to Rathbone should he be captured by the Germans. After the test of the bombsight goes perfectly, Post disappoints the British government by insisting on producing the bombsight himself. He disassembles the sight into four pieces, giving each to a different scientific craftsman to produce independently, then disappears. This leads Rathbone first to the home of Verne, where she discovers the coded letter has been stolen. Dressed as a sailor, Rathbone then haunts the piers of the Thames in order to fall into the hands of Lionel Atwill as Professor Moriarty. He has been the one behind the disappearance of Post and the sale of the bombsight to Germany and it’s up to Holmes to foil his arch nemesis yet again.

By the time of this film’s release, Rathbone’s disguises as Holmes were something audiences were attuned to and looked for. Rather ingeniously, the first couple are obvious, as a way of lulling fans into a false sense of their own ability to spot them. The third disguise, while not really a surprise, is made a bit more difficult to detect and is much more satisfying. Nigel Bruce has very little to do in this film, apart from a couple of scenes with Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade, the first of his many appearances in the series. While Lionel Atwill had appeared in the first film in the series for Fox, The Hound of the Baskervilles, it was as the Baskerville family doctor, and this would be his only appearance as Moriarty. The opening theme by Frank Skinner accompanies the familiar title sequence with the shadows of Holmes and Watson walking through the fog, and stock music by Skinner from films as diverse as The Wolf Man and Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur accompany the rest of the film. Director Roy William Neill does a solid job on his first outing, without the flair of John Rawlins on The Voice of Terror to be sure, but he would improve as the series continued. The principals are great, as usual, while William Post Jr. and Kaaren Verne are decidedly B-list actors. Still, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon has its charms and will not disappoint fans of the series.