Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review: "Wonder"

"Wonder" is an old-fashioned, straight up weepie. Tears will be jerked, you can be sure. I liked the fact that the movie is unambiguous about its intentions, and carries them through effectively without irony or coyness.

Jacob Tremblay, who was so amazing in "Room," plays Auggie Pullman, a boy of 10 born with severe facial defects. He's been through 27 surgeries -- his family displays the hospital wristbands as a collage -- and has been home-schooled all his life by his ferocious devoted mom, played by Julia Roberts. Now, as he enters 5th grade, it has been decided it's time for him to integrate into a regular school with other kids.

Well, sort of. In Hollywood parlance, a "regular school" is an exclusive New York City private institution, Beecher Prep, where families that live in multi-million-dollar brownstones pay something like the U.S. median household income to send their kids to rub elbows with the best of the best. But for the purposes of the story, which is based on the best-selling by R.J. Palacio, what's important is that he's around other children consistently for the first time in his life.

The underlying themes of the movie are bullying and otherness. Mom and dad (Owen Wilson) send Auggie to school with the full knowledge that he will be stared at and picked on. They figure it's something he's going to have to deal with sooner or later, and calculate he's reached a level of emotional stability to deal with it.

Also, there's a subplot about the mom wanting to complete her master's thesis that was put on hold a decade ago to be his full-time guardian and tutor. And, frankly, she rightly wants to reclaim a little piece of her own life. I admired that the filmmakers -- director Stephen Chbosky, who co-wrote the script with Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne -- included this dynamic.

I know it runs counter to commonly accepted precepts and hagiography about mothers, but I personally think it's unhealthy for parents to let their kids think they have nothing going in their lives beyond raising them. Part of being a role model is not being afraid to display ambition and individuality.

The makeup effects on Tremblay are very good, to the point I didn't recognize him until I read the credits afterward. Auggie is a smart, sensitive kid who likes science and Minecraft, and has adapted pretty well to life inside his family unit. He tends to wear an oversized astronaut's helmet in public to avoid stares; it's his armor, really. So he has a tough time when his parents ask him to relinquish it.

Auggie does face teasing and isolation, but also picks up a friend in Jack Will (Noah Jupe), a poor scholarship kid with a nice streak. The joy on mom's face when he brings home a pal to play is worth the price of admission alone. Still, old troubles soon follow and Auggie finds himself estranged again.

He's got an older teen sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), and I was impressed the film devotes a significant amount of screen time following her life and seeing how it's impacted by having a brother who soaks up every ounce of attention from their parents. She's quiet and shy, and dealing with an unexpected fallout with her own best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell).

She starts to blossom when she joins the school theater club, and meets a cute, funny boy named Justin (Nadji Jeter) who takes a fancy to her.

I also greatly enjoyed Mandy Patinkin as Mr. Tushman, the headmaster of the school who understands the way kids actually think and behave, rather than the idealized regard in which their parents hold them. He is infinitely patient and kind, makes jokes about his name before the students have a chance to, and even manages to treat the bullies in a way that lets them know they are not irredeemable. He's basically the Santa Claus of educators.

"Wonder" plays out exactly the way we expect. Given the premise, we could practically write the ending ourselves. But it's still a touching movie that celebrates the weak and the meek, and shows there different kinds of strength.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: "Justice League"

All is forgiven for "Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice." The DC Comics supergroup franchise that seems like it's been teased for an eternity finally arrives with a peal of thunder.

"Justice League" is a huge, sprawling, action-packed film that also finds time to let each of the characters show a little of their heart. I know the fanboys may want wall-to-wall combat, but it's just meaningless fireworks unless we grasp what the stakes are. Director Zack Snyder and screenwriters Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio manage to find time for everything a good superhero film needs, and keep it just under two hours to boot.

Yes, it's a little goofy. Occasionally over-the-top so. Comic book movies have taken a decided turn toward comedy in recent years, and there's no putting that toothpaste back in the tube. Most of it is centered around the Flash (Ezra Miller), the self-designated comedic relief. Every team needs a cutup, I guess. Miller accepts the role with enthusiasm and aplomb.

My only really major complaint with the movie is that the villain isn't terribly memorable. He's a pretty generic big ol' axe-swinging dude promising to bring about the end of the world named Steppenwolf -- and no, it's not terribly imposing to have a bad guy named after a middling Canadian rock band. Portrayed by Cirian Hinds via motion capture with an oversized horn helmet, he looks like he could have stepped right out of the most recent Thor movie without skipping a beat.

And OK, I'm not too keen on the latest iteration of Aquaman, played by Jason Momoa. And not just because yet another blond superhero has been turned brunette for the movies. (Though Momoa at least has now-you-see-em, now-you-don't highlights.) He's portrayed as a surly, tatted-up dude who likes to blow into fishing towns to gargle whiskey in between saving lives. He's like a benevolent biker meets Caine from "Kung Fu."

When "BvS" left off, Superman (Henry Cavill) had died battling Lex Luthor's monstrous creation, leaving the world without hope. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is still brooding, but he's committed to the idea of putting together a group of meta-humans to head off looming threats. Strange bug-like flying men have taken to popping up here and there, attracted by the smell of fear.

His only recruit thus far is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who he sees as the logical replacement for Superman's beacon of virtue. But she's hesitant to take up that mantle, for reasons we saw in her solo movie earlier this year.

Wayne's other targets are Aquaman, Flash and Cyborg. Flash's only power is the ability to run crazy fast, and also generate electrical impulses while doing so. As he himself says, he's no warrior: "I've just pushed people and run away." His super-speed sequences are depicted in slo-mo, much like they did with Quicksilver in the "X-Men" movies, and there's one great scene where Flash gets a surprise of his own.

Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is your classic man/machine hybrid, who doesn't understand the full of extent of his expanding powers and sometimes even struggles to control them.

The team also gets a late, unexpected addition to the roster in time for the third act, but I'll say no more.

The plot is the usual gobbledygook about cosmic doohickeys being rediscovered and fitted together somehow to create end times. In this case, three square Mother Stones that were hidden away eons ago to prevent them from being combined to create the Unity.

(It's disturbing how weapons of cosmic destruction are always given such soothing names in the movies. How about the Hellacious Doom-Bringer?)

The action is frenetic and sometimes a little hard to follow. It's interesting to watch the different fighting styles of the heroes. Batman is all about intricate moves and outsmarting your opponents -- a necessity as he's the only league member lacking super-powers -- while Wonder Woman is a straight-on badass warrior who uses her sword, shield and magical rope, which forces people to reveal the truth.

Aquaman does more than just speak to fishies, wielding a trident and his own measure of super-strength. Cyborg's body is basically one big Iron Man suit, with a new gadget to pull out for every situation.

"Justice League" isn't nearly as good as the first Avengers movie, but it delivers a DC team flick that's undeniably entertaining. After the letdowns of "Man of Steel" and "BvS" -- and let's not even talk about that Green Lantern disaster -- the "other" comic book empire has finally put solid wood on the ball.

Post-script: Stick around during the credits for a couple of neat bonus scenes. The first recreates one of my favorite comic book events from my childhood, while the second demonstrates how out-of-touch I am with the modern comics scene.

Review: "The Square"

The Cannes Film Festival's highest award, the Palme d'Or, has increasingly become an emblem of European disdain for American/British cinema rather than a token of respect for the film that wins it.

Once a major indication of the best foreign films coming down the pike, it's reached the point of such irrelevance that it's now uncommon for the Palme d'Or winner to even receive an extensive theatrical release in the U.S. If you can name last year's winner without the help of Google -- it was Ken Loach's "I, Daniel Blake," for the record -- then I bow before your film trivia superiority.

This year's winner, "The Square," is a refreshing departure, a Swedish film that's actually thoughtful and engaging -- and will actually be seen by people outside of New York, L.A. and Chicago. Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, who made the terrific "Force Majeure" a few years ago, it's a rumination on art, morality and power.

Our protagonist is Christian (Claes Bang), the chief artistic director of a major museum housed in the former Stockholm castle of the Swedish royal family. In the opening scene he is interviewed in English by an American television journalist, Anne (Elisabeth Moss), who seems entirely dim and unprepared for the questions she is to ask. Christian labors not to be condescending, talking intelligently and passionately about the role between art, the museums that present it and their patrons.

His museum is about to debut a new outdoor exhibit, from which the film takes its title, a square of light amidst the stone tiles that is, well, a trifle boring. It's supposed to challenge guests to think about how they regard each other and the spaces they share. "The square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations," reads the display plaque.

Challenged to drum up excitement and donations, Christian and his team have engaged some young hotshot marketers who have very... bold ideas about how to promote The Square. Unfortunately, Christian is too engaged in his own personal events to properly oversee the plan.

Early in the film Christian has his pocket picked by some inspired thieves with a complex con job. Rather than simply call the police, Christian pressures a young employee (Christopher Læssø) to help him find his smartphone via its internal locator. Then they hatch a scheme to  have his effects returned, and things grow more and more dire.

I was occasionally bewildered by "The Square," but never bored by it. For example, in one character's apartment we are surprised to see a gorilla, apparently living there as a companion -- a fact that goes uncommented upon by anyone.

Later, the theme of beastly behavior is reprised in what is undoubtedly the film's most pivotal scene. At a lavish fundraiser at the museum for its wealthiest patrons, a piece of performance art is debuted in which a man (Terry Notary) portrays a great ape. The guests are warned they are about to encounter a savage creature, but they will be in no danger if they acquiesce to its dominance -- don't look him in the eye, etc.

The dynamic shifts as the scene plays on, and it becomes a parable about when and how we should separate performance and reality. Are acts really deplorable if they are committed under the rubric of "art?" At one point should the artist and audience interact? Be opposed?

These questions are further explored in the audience's relationship to Christian. At first a seemingly benevolent figure, he gradually shrinks in our eyes as he becomes more and more willing to trade his integrity in order to protect himself and his position.

At one point he becomes engaged in a conflict with a boy of about age 12. The kid is being entirely unreasonable, and acting as if a grown man should be subservient to his demands. But how Christian responds is even more troubling.

Men and beasts, adults and children, artists and audiences -- these are relationships that often balance according to the whims of those who hold power, and how they choose to wield it. There are times in life where we must agree to be dominated, and others where we are the one who dominates, and not enough occasions upon which we simply exchange trust.

Review: "Lady Bird"

Most teen movies aren’t really about teenagers.

Certainly, they don’t usually feature actual teens, preferring actors in their mid-20s and up. Instead of being themselves, movie teens act as vessels for adult filmmakers and audiences to work out their hang-ups, or idolize their youth.

Awkwardness and acne? The realities of teendom get kicked to the curb in favor of gleeful hookups and glowing skin.

“Lady Bird,” the first directorial effort from Greta Gerwig, is the exceptional exception: it is thoroughly of, about and for teens. Here is one of the best films of the year.

It stars Saoirse Ronan in a quasi-autobiographical take on Gergwig’s own upbringing in Sacramento, Calif., focusing on the title character’s senior year at (fictional) Xavier Catholic High School. Gerwig also penned the screenplay.

Christine McPherson is struggling to find an identity, to carve out a place in the world of her own making. She’s desperate to get into a good East Coast college, land a boyfriend and lose her virginity, and most of all to get away from her critical, overbearing mother. She even gives herself an alternate name, Lady Bird, mostly as a reason to cast off her mom’s insistence on defining her.

This movie is about a lot of things, but Lady Bird’s relationship to her mom is at the heart of all. Gerwig, known for playing complex, challenging female characters onscreen, gives us two magnificent ones -- brave, flawed, with oversized personalities and shrunken appreciation for each other.

Yet there is a fierce love at the bedrock. Constantly harping about her mother, Lady Bird nonetheless rushes to defend her as having a “huge heart” when anyone echoes her criticism.

Laurie Metcalf plays the mother, in a three-dimensional performance of such ferocious trueness it will be a scandal if her name doesn’t come up during the awards cycle. We can sense the mistakes her own mother made with her, and see how she struggles to avoid them while demanding her daughter set high goals for herself.

“I just wished you liked me,” Lady Bird says to her mom, both accusing and pleading.

The film is also unexpectedly realistic in how it approaches themes rarely broached with anything resembling sensitivity in mainstream filmmaking: money and faith.

Lady Bird’s family is working class, living (literally) across the tracks from the tonier parts of Sacramento, buying clothes in thrift stores and eschewing luxuries to afford to send Lady Bird to a private school. Almost every line of dialogue her mom utters in the movie is tied to finances in some way.

Her dad (Tracy Letts) has his own struggles, including losing his job, but works mightily to keep them from affecting his relationships with his family. He tries to support both Lady Bird and his wife in their contest with each other, always offering his own quiet, unconditional love.

Lady Bird’s approach to her Catholic upbringing is somewhat rebellious, but also grounded in a sense of being home. The priests and nuns who run the place (notably Stephen Henderson and Lois Smith) impose the old rule on “leaving six inches for the Lord” between couples at dances, but also encourage their students to think and explore.

Set in 2002-03, the story has 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq firmly in the background, as Lady Bird trips through the normal watershed moments of her senior year: holidays, prom, college applications, etc. She yearns for, and then lands, the dreamy boy in theater class, Danny (Lucas Hedges). Though she finds it a little odd she has to play offense rather than defense when it comes to physical intimacy.

Her long friendship with smiling, shy Julie (a terrific Beanie Feldstein) is tested as their paths invariably diverge. Lady Bird takes up with a new pal, Jenna (Odeya Rush), the seemingly perfect rich girl she had previously mocked-while-envying. She acquires another love interest (Timothée Chalamet), who’s trying on radicalism as a fashion statement.

We see that Lady Bird’s primary weakness is her willingness to adapt her outward self to other people and circumstances. She embraces the theater scene, until she doesn’t. She smokes clove cigarettes because that’s what her friends do. She lies about who she is, in order to placate what she thinks are the expectations of others.

It’s an amazing turn by Ronan, who continues to cement her reputation as one of the finest actresses of her young generation. Though 23, she ably passes for 17, even showcasing her character’s acne-scarred cheeks and often inept sense of fashion.

“Lady Bird” is a portrait of a profound soul emerging from the cocoon of youth to regard the world with fear, resentment and awe. This is a film that knows one of the hallmarks of being a teenager is that we don’t yet know very much, but that which we do hold we grip onto with frightening strength.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Video review: "Brigsby Bear"

Since I only feature one video a week in this column, I often struggle with which films to write about. Do I stick to just the big box office hits? Or try to showcase something smaller and quirkier?

In truth, it’s probably wiser to concentrate on the high-profile movies since more people are interested in them. But in this age of exploding content, I think it’s a critic’s highest duty to point people in the direction of worthy films that they haven’t heard about.

“Brigsby Bear” is one of my favorite films of 2017. Barring a rush of tremendous awards hopefuls in the last couple of months, it will almost certainly make my Top 10 list. It’s a weird, wonderful flick that is as emotionally engaging as it is hard to describe.

But I’ll try my best.

Kyle Mooney, who also co-wrote the script with Kevin Costello, plays James, an isolated, meek man of about 30 who still lives very much in a childlike state. He has spent most of his life living in a desert bunker with his parents (Mark Hamill is terrific as the dad) after an apparent post-apocalyptic tragedy.

At least a little bit of society is still functioning somewhere, as evidenced by the one television show still producing new episodes on a weekly basis. James has been following “Brigsby Bear” with religious devotion since he was a child -- it’s his whole world, really. It’s a cheap educational program that involves a superhero bear battling an evil villain named Sunsnatcher with the help of some special friends.

Without giving anything away, James eventually moves beyond his simple life to a much wider community. Much to his chagrin, nobody else seems to have ever heard of Brigsby. So he takes it upon himself to show them the magic of how that experience has affected him – including donning the Brigsby oversized head and making new episodes himself.

Ostensibly a comedy, “Brigsby Bear” is really a story of people who have every reason to stand apart coming together in a way that binds them and brings joy. It’s a peculiar, beautiful film that showcases the boundless capabilities of cinema.

Video extras are rather good for such a small release, and the DVD version comes with a good stock of offerings.

They include a feature-length commentary track with Mooney and director Dave McCary, a “Twin Speak” featurette with the same pair, a gag real, Q&A with the cast and “The Wisdom of Brigsby Bear” feature.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition and you add deleted and extended scenes and “Brigsby Bear: The Lost Episode! Volume 23 Episode 14: The Festival of Kindness.”



Thursday, November 9, 2017

Review: "Murder on the Orient Express"

The remake of “Murder on the Orient Express” starts slow, chuffing away and spinning its wheels with little forward movement, but gradually builds a head of steam. It propels us through the usual twists and turns of a classic whodunit, as a dozen suspects are queried and sorted in the search for a killer.

By the end of the film, it has completely transcended the murder/mystery genre and become an emotionally affecting treatise on right and wrong, evil deeds and revenge.

I wasn’t expecting this movie, but I confess I wasn’t expecting much at all. I’ve neither read the book by Agatha Christie nor seen the 1974 film version.

(I assure you I mean to: it’s currently sitting in my Netflix DVD queue. Yes, some of us still pay for the shiny disc plan.)

Kenneth Branagh directs and stars as the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot -- everybody wants to call him “Hercules” -- an ostentatiously mustachioed gentleman whose courtly demeanor hides a mind as troubled as it is brilliant.

Poirot is vexed by “imbalance” -- whether it be a tie knotted askew, two boiled eggs for breakfast that are not the same size or a plot to take another human life. People wonder at his marvelous deductions, but as he explains to an admirer, when things are not perfectly aligned it stands out to him as plain as the nose on your face.

Even if, like me, you are innocent of the book and other movie, you probably know the basic plot: Poirot is plopped onto a train full of colorful characters, and one of them turns up gruesomely dead. Trapped by an avalanche that has derailed the locomotive, they stew together as the masterful investigator sifts through the evidence, which includes a torrent of lies and misdirection.

Michael Green provides the screenplay, which near as I can figure follows the book and other film pretty closely. The ethnicities and vocations of a few of the characters are shifted around, but the basic dynamics remain the same.

This is billed as one of those classic “all-star casts” -- though, truth be told, it’s more like half a cast of stars, most of them faded, a quarter recognizable character actors and a quarter you’ve never heard of.

Johnny Depp is the biggest name, playing a slimy, scarred American businessman named Ratchett. Michelle Pfeiffer turns up as Caroline Hubbard, an often-divorced woman apparently looking for her next sugar daddy, and Poirot is her prime candidate. Josh Gad is Hector MacQueen, Ratchett’s resentful secretary, and his manservant, Masterman, is played by Derek Jacobi.

Judi Dench, alas, is given little to do as a snooty displaced Russian princess, though Daisy Ridley delights and surprises as Mary Debenham, a smart and resourceful governess. Lucy Boynton and Sergei Polunin are addled dancers/diplomats/royalty.

Willem Dafoe plays Gerhard Hardman, a xenophobic German scientist, and Leslie Odom Jr. plays Arbuthnot, a black British doctor. Penelope Cruz is Pilar Estravados, a nurse turned missionary whose job is to make devilish pronouncements about the evil that men (and maybe women) do.

It’s a sumptuous movie of gorgeous costumes and exquisite settings. The Orient Express is not some railway for bumpkins, but a four-star hotel for the rich on wheels. Somehow even after the train engine is stopped, there’s still plenty of heat and five-course meals.

I’ll admit the turnabouts of the plot started to grow a little tiresome for me -- “It’s him! No, it’s her!” -- but the movie really starts to gel just past the midway point. Poirot is basically a human Google: he knows everything about everyone, everywhere.

I wouldn’t think to give any hints about the ending, other than to see it’s a humdinger. Forty years after it was a movie, and 40 more for the book, “Murder on the Orient Express” still has surprises aplenty.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Bite the Bullet" (1975)

I retain many disconnected images of cinema I saw in my youth, like jigsaw puzzle pieces scattered far afield of the set. Usually, they don't ever get fitted back together again with their movie.

One of the most vivid is of an exhausted cowboy climbing off his lathered horse right before the finish line of a grueling race, pausing to give the poor animal a drink of water from his canteen before taking one himself. I had no idea of its provenance, until I recognized it from "Bite the Bullet," a largely unremembered 1975 Western written and directed by Richard Brooks.

Letting the horse drink before he does is simply the way of Sam Clayton, a former Roughrider and ranch hand who joins the 700-mile race at the last minute, seemingly on a whim. He takes his time dawdling through most of the contest, usually near the back of the pack. After awhile we get the sense he's only there to watch over the horses, and to a far lesser extent the people riding them.

Sam is introduced by another pivotal character as a "defender of dumb animals, damsels in distress, champion of lost causes." He expresses his true feelings about the race just before the jump-off:

"Mister, did you ever see a horse run himself to death just to please the man on his back? What's the horse get out of it? Cracked bones? Colic? See his picture in the paper? Horse doesn't give a damn who wins a race. Me neither," Sam snorts.

Played inimitably by Gene Hackman, Sam reminded me in a lot of ways of Tom Smith, the horse trainer so memorably portrayed by Chris Cooper in "Seabiscuit." Both are very much disciples of the range, at home among hard men and hard living, yet standing apart from them in many ways -- not the least of which being their genuine compassion for the animals who serve them.

(Though Smith does obviously care about winning races.)

Sam is entirely capable of cruelty, returning abuse when he sees it visited upon horses by humans. In the opening scene he is appalled to find an abandoned glue wagon with several horses left for dead, including a pair that have been trussed up as bait for vultures. After setting free a still-living horse and rescuing a new foal, he is choked up by a mare that has essentially been crucified, its body held down and pierced by thick wire.

The look in Sam's eye leaves us certain that if the men who committed this atrocity were at hand, murders would be in the making.

Later, Sam encounters a stupid young cowpuncher, Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent), attempting to knock out a jackass with one blow. Sam gives the boy the exact same treatment with his own fist, leading to a running feud that culminates with Sam whipping Carbo as punishment for riding his horse to death.

He makes the kid bury the beast, using his bare hands to sift the desert sand over the carcass -- an almost religious ritual in which the boy must tend to the flesh he has abused.

In a typical movie narrative, the punk cowboy would become the villain of the piece. Instead, the stern hand of Sam actually leads to Carbo's rehabilitation. His bravado finally falling, he admits to Miss Jones, the sole female contestant played by Candice Bergen, that despite the fancy pistol rig he wears he's never been in a gunfight, or even worked as a cowboy.

When Sam experiences that glorious moment at the end, the shared slaking of thirst by man and horse, it's Carbo's face the camera cuts to, teary-eyed. He witnesses this tender example of a symbiotic relationship between partners, not servant and served, and is overcome.

We sense the youngster will go on in life, a fake cowboy who turns into a real one, and take up Sam's mantle as a true defender of the West.

The race may sound like Hollywood hooey, but it's based on an actual events. In this telling set in 1908, the contest is sponsored and promoted by the "Western Press," mostly as a vanity project for magnate J.B. Parker (Paul Stewart) on behalf of his champion horse. He and his pompous son, Jack Parker (Dabney Coleman), ride around in a luxury train along the race route, applying cajoling and pressure as needed.

Sam worked for the Parkers, and his job was to bring their horse to meet the train gathering the contestants for the race. But he screwed up by stopping to help the glue horses and missed the train, and finds himself fired.

It's a little unclear if Sam was intended to ride the Parkers' horse in the race or merely fetch him, but either way he's out of a job. We would expect the fellow who does ride the rich man's horse to be a boastful fool, but he actually describes his opponents with great respect and delivers a cagey analysis of their abilities. They include:
  • Miss Jones -- A prostitute turned rider, whose exact motives remain somewhat of a mystery until the end. Interestingly, although the reporter covering the race and many observers regard her participation as a stunt, the other racers treat her like one of their own. She's not the best rider but probably has the strongest horse, if only she would ever let it go full-out.
  • Luke Matthews -- A fellow Roughrider, friend of Sam's, gambler and con man played by James Coburn, Luke has laid all his fortune on the line with a private bet against the Parkers. He's dismayed when Sam throws in right before the start, because that means only one of them can win. And he's not above trying to bribe his friend to throw the race. Luke is a smart rider, takes lots of chances and is lucky.
  • Sir Harry Norfolk -- A British gamesman played by Ian Bannen, Norfolk has traveled the globe for the sake of sport. He relishes competition for its own sake, and his steed is the fastest in the open field. Unfortunately for him, the race course is mostly mountains, gulches, steep ravines and scorching deserts.
  • Carbo -- He's got hay for brains, but his mustang is a tough beast and Carbo is willing to flay him alive to keep him moving.
  • Mister -- We never even learn the old-timer's name, played by Ben Johnson. He's got a stiff back and a "bad pump," to use his own words, and by his own appraisal is 30 years past his prime. But after a lifetime of making any kind of living he can on the back of a horse, he dreams of winning the race and finally becoming a "top man... a man to remember."
  • Mexican -- We never get a name for him either, played by Mario Arteaga. But that's perhaps appropriate as he's dismissed as "the Mexican" by the largely Caucasian cast of characters. Plagued by a bad tooth, he actually provides the film's title, when a bit of ad-hoc dentistry results in him using a bullet casing as a crown. He's possibly the best natural horsemen of the bunch.
  • Sam -- What he lacks in horse, he more than makes up for in experience and patience. Parker's man calls him "the sleeper," the one racer he's truly worried about.
"Bite the Bullet" is a character piece that's not really driven by story. Indeed, beyond the framework of the race, there really isn't much of a narrative at all. The riders start out as individual competitors and gradually find out more about each other, eventually coming together in a bond of their own small, shared little community.

Sam sets the tone by repeatedly stopping to assist other racers, and soon it becomes infectious. Luke helps Norfolk when he tumbles down a ravine, and Miss Jones attends to Mexican with almost maternal sympathy. As mentioned, even the mercenary Carbo softens in the end.

Richard Brooks is a giant of midcentury cinema who doesn't have nearly the reputation he deserves. Often writing his own screenplays as well, his credits include "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "In Cold Blood," "The Professionals," "The Last Time I Saw Paris," "Blackboard Jungle," "Lord Jim" and "Sweet Bird of Youth." He was nominated for the Academy Award six times, and won once for "Elmer Gantry."

I think what I most appreciated about "Bite the Bullet" was the sheer atypicalness of it. The movie never moves in a conventional direction. I would call it a neo-Western or revisionist one, which harkens back to the pillars of the genre while also questioning and undermining them.

Sam Clayton is tough, ornery loner, but his value system is decidedly askew from that of the Saint Johns of the Western, Wayne and Ford. At one point Sam actually declares himself un-American, casting competition and the desire to be the first or the best or the richest as unworthy endeavors.

The dialogue is whip-smart and memorable, with so many great throwaway jokes and asides. Other notable characters include Rosie (Jean Willes), the world-wise madam who brings her operation along with the race, happily inflating prices. Sally Kirkland plays Honey, her main whore. Walter Scott plays Steve, Miss Jones' husband, estranged by circumstances that will become important. Robert Donner plays the reporter who acts as the audience's stand-in, questioning and chronicling.

For a movie that depicts its main event as pointless and cruel, "Bite the Bullet" is a surprisingly effective film that is much more than the sum of its dust-coated parts.