Monday, April 23, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Bad Company" (1972)

A teaser I used to like to spring on people was this: "Do you know who is very quietly having himself one of the all-time great film acting careers?"

Prior to 2009, when he finally won an Academy Award after five tries, I don't think many people would have answered "Jeff Bridges." But I think it's true -- and evidently more now agree with me, helped by two more Oscar nominations since.

Seriously: Bogie. Cary Grant. John Wayne. Jack Nicholson. Brando. Pacino. Duvall. De Niro. You name 'em... Bridges can match (or beat) any of them in terms of acting technique, career longevity, range, choice of roles and emotional genuineness.

Think of a time over the last five decades when Jeff Bridges wasn't making great movies. You can't. From "The Last Picture Show" up until "Hell or High Water" a little more than a year back, he's always inhabiting roles with an unpracticed authenticity, from giant blockbusters to little indies, playing everything from presidents to aliens to cowpokes.

Each time, we never question him for an instant. We never think, "Here's the big movie star, doing his thing." (Unlike, say, Harrison Ford, who's roughly his contemporary.) Maybe it's because he's never been much of a public celebrity -- married to the same woman for 40-plus years -- or politically outspoken, but Bridges has that ability to instantly disappear right in front of us. I think part of the reason he didn't get the credit he deserved was because he made it look so easy.

Fresh off an Oscar nomination for "Picture Show," Bridges co-starred in "Bad Company," a Western directed by Robert Benton ("Kramer vs. Kramer"), in his first foray behind the camera, from a script he co-wrote with David Newman. The two had also collaborated on the screenplay for "Bonnie and Clyde," and with this film Benton launched an important directing career spanning four decades, including the underrated "The Human Stain" from 2003. In all, Benton has notched six Oscar nominations with three wins.

Bridges was about 22 when they shot the film, playing maybe 17 or 18 as the leader of a distaff gang of boys fleeing conscription in the Union army to seek their fortunes in the West.

I admit I'd never heard the term "acid Western," which more or less got started with "El Topo" in 1970, and was loosely applied to a number of films in the ensuing years, including "Bad Company." The movie is certainly not surreal or bizarre like Jodorowsky's. In a lot of ways, it's very old-fashioned, with its washed-out colors -- almost sepia-toned -- familiar Western archetypes and tinny piano musical score (by Harvey Schmidt).

Perhaps it got thrown in with the acid crowd because of its youthful cast, which was taken to mean Benton and Newman were espousing a counter-cultural stance. It's a tale of how very young boys were chewed up and spit out by a burgeoning young nation's expansion. For me, it's notable that they set out not out of a sense of adventure, but fleeing from serving in the Civil War. Of course, they end up finding as big a bellyful of violence, malevolence and despair as they would've on the front lines.

Robert Ebert, in his contemporaneous review, noted correctly that the story is essentially a series of self-contained episodes. Drew Dixon (Barry Brown), an upright Christian lad from Ohio, is sent packing by his parents after the bluejacket recruiters come calling at every household, dragging out boys outfitted in dresses to fool the draft. The Dixons already sacrificed their older son to the war, and send the younger one west to seek safety and fortune, with $100 and his sibling's gold watch to guide him.

He soon runs in with Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges), a bushwhacker who befriends Drew by warning him about the prevalence of bushwhackers in these parts. After cautioning him that all the stagecoaches west are booked for six months solid, Jake plunks him over the head and steals all the money in his pocket (not knowing that Drew has hidden the bulk of his fortune in his boot).

Coming to, Drew seeks solace at the house of the local preacher, but after the wife leaves to fetch him, who should come calling but Jake, holding the purse one of his gang stole earlier, hoping to return it for a double-dipped reward. The two lads take up a ferocious row, smashing apart the woman's drawing room, before making their peace with Jake offering to take Drew into his gang.

First, Drew has to prove his worth by pulling off a job alone, which he fakes by spinning a story of robbing a local merchant, presenting $12 from his secret stash as evidence.

From there, the story is a gradual descent in fortunes as the boys move marginally westward, encountering bandits, farmers, whores, lawmen and other fates that whittle their numbers until only Drew and Jake remain. Ardent friends who often behave like foes, it's the low-born scallywag trying to make sense of the educated fellow who reads "Jane Eyre" and refuses to steal, and vice-versa.

The supporting cast is a veritable who's who of "that guy" character actors:
  • John Savage, in just his third film role, as Loney, the suspicious member of the gang.
  • Jerry Houser, forever Killer Carson from "Slap Shot," as Arthur, the nervous one.
  • Ed Lauter, a lifetime of cops and robbers roles, as a hard bandit who narrates his own death.
  • Geoffrey Lewis, recognizable by his blue eyes and bald pate, as another robber who gets his hands on Drew's watch... for a time.
  • Jim Davis as the hard-hearted Marshal who eventually catches up with everyone.
  • John Quade, another bald-headed bad guy known for his porcine visage, who often tussled with Clint Eastwood onscreen.
  • Charles Tyner, with a scowl that could curdle milk, as a (barely) generous farmer in the boys' time of need.
The boys' gang is rounded out by Jim Bob (Damon Douglas), a dimwitted blond, and Joshua Hill Lewis as Boog, a pint-sized fountain of foul-mouthed insults. Boog is only about 11 or 12 years, usually the brunt of the other boys' teasing, so his inevitable death -- his head blasted apart by a shotgun for stealing a pie -- marks the film's turning from fun 'n' games to tragic lesson.

The real standout of the supporting cast is David Huddleston as Big Joe, the aging leader of the gang of bandits who waylay Jake's crew, after he has fallen asleep during his turn at watch. Wearing a stovepipe hat, a voluminous fur coat and often chewing a pipe, Big Joe serves as Jake's chief antagonist, and teacher.

There's a great moment where Jake levels his pistol at Big Joe, who doesn't even flinch, talking the boy into complacency, then casually whipping out his own sidearm and blasting Jake's revolver away. "Still got it," he mutters to himself, before tendering this sage counsel:
"My boy, let me give you a little piece of advice. If you're going to pull a gun on somebody, which happens from time to time in these parts, you better fire it about a half a second after you do it... because most men aren't as patient as I am."
He orders his men to seize every last bit of their wealth -- even their beans and coffee -- but leaves the boys with their guns and horses. Because it's acceptable in this eat-or-be-eaten hellscape to inflict every means of deprivation, but you don't leave another man immobile and defenseless.

In a normal Western the paths of Big Joe, Drew and Jake would cross again with a violent extravaganza. This does happen, but the older man sits the fight out, reassured by his lieutenant that the rest of the men can handle two boys. Jake and Drew manage to get the drop and blast apart Big Joe's entire gang, but he doesn't bother with revenge -- simply gathering up another gang to keep marauding.

After Drew and Jake have inevitably come to cross purposes, after the latter finally discovers Drew's secret stash of cash and thunks him unconscious a second time, it comes as little surprise to us to discover that Jake throws in with Big Joe. Perhaps the hot-headed lad, who loves to boss others around, has finally figured out he has a thing or two to learn.

"Bad Company" is a good, not a great film. The central dynamic between Jake and Drew never fully clicks, though each actor acquits himself well. Bridges is charismatic and slightly skeevy, while Brown comes across has hopelessly blinkered -- a do-gooder who tries to convince himself he's not careening down the slipper slope.

Sad coda to his career: Brown made a few more films, with never such another high-profile role (unless you count his billing as "trooper" in "Piranha") and a little TV, before taking his own life in 1978 at age 27.

Though the film isn't well remembered these days, it does showcase one of the most important actors of the last century, stepping from boyhood roles into grown-up ones, and from the edge of the stage to the center.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Video review: "Hostiles"

“Hostiles” was probably the best movie of 2017 that you never heard of, despite featuring some big names. It barely got a theatrical release, earning $29 million -- short of its $39 million production budget. But it’s a spare, bleak gem.

It’s a throwback-style Western that very much has Things to Say about this day and age.

Christian Bale plays Joseph Blocker, a famous Indian hunter who’s about to retire when he’s given the proverbial one last job. And it’s a doozy: escort his longtime enemy, a Comanche war chief named Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), back to his ancestral home in Montana so he can die in piece.

Blocker is racist, alcoholic and prone to violence. Yellow Hawk is proud and reserved. His son, Black Hawk (Adam Beach), tries to broach a peace between them, but old enmities die hard.

Along the winding journey they pick up other forlorn figures. Rosamund Pike plays a frontier woman who’s just had her entire family wiped out by native warriors. Yellow Hawk and his family take her in like an adopted daughter. Seeing this, Blocker recognizes human warmth in his old enemy, possibly for the first time in his life.

The inimitable character actor Ben Foster plays a disgraced former soldier, a former comrade of Blocker’s, who’s been sentenced to die. In him, Blocker sees a reflection of himself that isn’t easy to look at.

Writer/director Scott Cooper also made the wonderful “Crazy Heart” a few years ago. He’s a filmmaker who refuses to cram his characters into neat stereotypical holes, letting each person travel their own journey in a way that feels organic.

In a time when so many movies put service to the plot above building believable characters, “Hostiles” is the sturdy exception that sees the horizon beyond.

Bonus features are limited to a single item, a comprehensive making-of documentary, “A Journey to the Soul: The Making of Hostiles.” It includes three parts: “Provenance,” “Removing the Binds” and “Don’t Look Back.”



Thursday, April 19, 2018

Review: "I Feel Pretty"

“I Feel Pretty” is explicitly in the rich tradition of body switcheroo comedies like “Big,” with the caveat being that star Amy Schumer doesn’t actually change at all. Her character just thinks she does, and that gives her the wherewithal to live a life so utterly without fear, she’s able to make all her dreams come true.

The joke is that Renee Barrett (Schumer) is a frumpy girl who believes she’s just reacting to a world that suddenly shines down its approval upon her because she’s become spectacularly beautiful, when in fact it is she who is acting in a way that makes people take notice, smile and wish good things for her.

It’s dangerous for a man to talk about women’s body issues without risking alienation, but the theme is at the center of the movie, written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, who previously made “The Vow” and “How To Be Single.” So here goes.

Schumer has the smart, sassy comedic persona of a swinging bachelorette. She likes to poke fun at herself, while also inserting cutting digs about how society only values women if they look a certain way, especially thin. Schumer has a figure that’s probably about average by modern American standards, but decidedly chubby by Hollywood’s merciless yardstick.

Someone of my mother’s generation would blurt something like, “she’s got extra pounds, but she wears it in all the right places.” She looks just fine to these eyes, but hey, it’s not about pleasing this here male gaze. It’s about accepting, and even liking, what you’ve got.

Renee works in the crappy web division of cosmetics giant LeClaire, an underground cave consisting of just her and a gruff, uncommunicative computer geek (Adrian Martinez). She’s got two great friends as wingwomen, (Busy Philipps and Aidy Bryant), but the New York City dating scene is brutal for “plain” girls. The trio signs up for Grouper, a group dating website, and is crushed when their fun-loving photo garners zero views.

Anyway, Renee gets conked on the head while at spin class, and wakes up thinking she’s magically transformed into the most beautiful person in the world. She’s worried her pals won’t even recognize her. Some of the film’s best scenes are of regular people running into this prideful, energetic woman, and their quizzical reactions to her confidence.

If their thoughts could be put into cartoon word bubbles over their heads, it would go something like this: “Hey, you’re not allowed to act gorgeous unless you actually are.”

The flip side is that people are eventually so ensorcelled by her verve, great things start happening to her. She’s given a job as the main receptionist at LeClaire, and soon charms the family of owners into letting her be the face of their new lower-cost cosmetics line.

Michelle Williams plays Avery, the CEO who has an MBA from Wharton’s, but is constantly undercut because of her kewpie doll voice. Tom Hopper is the rapscallion brother, Grant, who doesn’t do much but looks great in photo shirts that are perpetually two sizes too small. He finds himself pitching woo at the cherub-faced dynamo. Lauren Hutton plays the grandmother, who wants to upend their brand’s fancy-schmancy image.

I also liked Rory Scovel as Ethan, the regular joe who finds himself more or less coerced into a relationship with Renee. He’s at first bemused, then horrified, then entranced by this woman who goes for what she wants, and gets it. “You’re so yourself,” he says, awestruck.

The filmmakers make an interesting choice by never actually depicting what Renee thinks her new form looks like. Such a thing might have been off-putting, like when they did something similar for Gwyneth Paltrow in "Shallow Hal."

There’s a great scene where Renee enters a bikini contest, shaking her ample assets up against women without an ounce of jiggle, and her enthusiasm gradually wins over the skeptical crowd. In most movies she’d win the prize, but here the heroine has so much zest it barely even matters.

“I Feel Pretty” is a feel-good comedy with some decent laughs and a few nice lessons along the way. At 110 minutes, the film would’ve been better if it was a bit skinnier, something often true of movies but not so much for women, who’ve been pummeled into thinking less is always more.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Review: "Lean on Pete"

This was not the film I was expecting.

You’d think a movie about a boy and a horse would be uplifting and affirming; e.g., damaged human and damaged animal learn to heal together, in the mold of “Seabiscuit.” But stories about young people who grow attached to animals have a long cinematic tradition of sadness and loss.

“Lean on Pete” is from writer/director Andrew Haigh, whose last film, “45 Years,” was a sharp and probing exploration of the hidden pain behind a long marriage. Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, “Pete” is about a teen boy, Charlie (Charlie Plummer), who has managed to keep a positive outlook despite a life filled with uncertainty and abandonment -- emotionally and otherwise.

Then he gets a job working for a bottom-feeding horse trainer, chiefly looking after an over-the-hill, never-was quarterhorse named Lean on Pete. Normally in a movie of this sort, this would be when circumstances start to turn around for Charlie. He’d start riding Pete, they win the big race, etc.

But instead, things turn into a pile of manure as big as those he shovels out of the stable on a daily basis.

Obviously I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice to say it involves a cross-country journey in which Charlie and Pete are running away as much as they are running toward something. It’s a noble quest, not for any higher purpose beyond continued existence and respect as living beings worth more than what they can do for others.

Plummer is terrific, playing a man-child -- he supplies his age as 16, 18 or 15 at various times -- who is going through big life-changing experiences before he has had a chance to form the emotional armor to protect him. It’s that time in a person’s life where trivialities seem momentous, while truly impactful things are shunted to the side until we can deal with them.

His dad is Ray (Travis Fimmel), a blue-collar loser who moves from place to place and job to job, partying and sleeping around. But he truly loves his kid, and gives Charlie positive encouragement -- at least when he’s around long enough to do so. Charlie mostly lives off Cap’n Crunch and TV.

A new father figure appears in the form of Del (Steve Buscemi), a fourth-rate horse trainer. He used to run around 20 horses, now he’s down to a handful. He tools around in his ancient Ford pickup and trailer, anywhere he can make a few bucks running his horses in a race, whether it’s at a decaying track or just a barn jump.

Del takes Charlie under his wing, showing him the ropes and praising the young man’s work ethic. But he shoos Charlie away from the racing life. “You should do something else, before you can’t do anything else,” Del says.

Charlie also finds a friend in Bonnie (ChloĆ« Sevigny), who rides jockey for Del from time to time. She tells Charlie about what it’s like to be a woman in an old-school man’s sport, freely offering her friendship and advice. Such as: don’t treat the horses like pets. Lean on Pete is scraping the bottom of Del’s very shallow barrel, a 5-year-old quarterhorse who’s just fast enough to win a few purses before age and injury catch up.

But it becomes clear that Del, and even Bonnie, view Pete and his ilk as mere conveyances for their own curdled dreams, to be used and cast off as needed. Del makes cryptic references to selling horses “down to Mexico,” and it’s not hard to guess what that means.

I admit that when the film embarked on the second half of its journey, I was initially reluctant to go along on their tough ride. Charlie and Pete have some run-ins, mostly bad, though they encounter a few kind souls. Plummer, already a slender kid, grows positively stick-like as their fortunes fade.

Haigh doesn’t give us the usual easy emotional entry points. For example, he doesn’t shoot Pete in close-up, to suggest the bond between man and beast. And Charlie never once climbs onto Pete’s back. He doesn’t want to be just somebody else demanding a fast ride.

“Lean on Pete” is the wrenching story of a young man yearning for the simplest thing: to be loved and wanted, and return the same. For a while, the best he can do is a horse no one else sees much worth in. That shared need gives them a sort of startling grace.

Review: "You Were Never Really Here"

Joe -- which may not be his real name -- is a lonely person, stuck somewhere between hero and villain, not caring much about the shadings between the two. He’s a man of mystery, but also a complete open book, in that everything about him is laid bare without pretense.

Played by Joaquin Phoenix in another one of his bizarre, affecting, only-he-could-pull-it-off performances, Joe is a hired thug who specializes in tracking down young girls who have been kidnapped and put into the sex trade. He’s an ex-something -- soldier, cop, maybe DEA or ICE -- we’re never really sure. Clearly his past life taints him.

Joe’s body is thick, strong, crisscrossed with scars. Hair and graying beard grow unchecked, pinned back as necessary when the work becomes wet… which is often.

“You Were Never Really There” is a sketch of a man who has no self-identity beyond what he does. Joe is brutal, preferring to use a hammer to split open the skulls of those he encounters. (It says something that he buys a fresh one for each job.) Yet he speaks with a gentle, muffled voice, even when interrogating someone he needs to squeeze for information.

He has lived with violence all his life; it is his constant companion but not his bride.

Writer/director Lynne Ramsay, whose last feature was the disturbing “We Need to Talk about Kevin” in 2011, gives us a very spare, deliberately paced film about revenge and persona. Based on the novel by Jonathan Ames, Joe is a man haunted by demons, but able to keep them at bay -- until his latest job goes bad, bad, bad.

Without giving anything away, it involves working for a state senator (Alex Manette), whose daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been taken. Much is left unspoken, but the politician knows more than he is saying.

“I want you to hurt them,” is his final instruction to Joe, along with the promise of $50,000.

Joe’s life is quiet and ordered, outside of the grim work he performs at night. He cares for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), who is homebound and watches TV all day. Joe nags her for having expired food in her fridge, or taking too long in the bathroom. But it’s clear he would never leave her.

Flashbacks give hints to domestic violence in their past. To calm his nerves, Joe likes to go into the closet of his boyhood bedroom and place a plastic bag over his head. He’s not trying to suffocate himself; certainly he gains no sexual pleasure from it (or possibly from anything). It’s just his way of coping with the past by recreating it.

There’s not much else to the story. John Doman plays Joe’s frontman, who finds him jobs in exchange for a cut. Angel (Frank Pando) is his bodega banker, handling the cash for his own little piece of the action. His dealings with both men are curt, unemotional. They are the closest things to friends a guy like him can have.

Ramsay takes her time building the ingredients of her tale, which is based on a novella by Jonathan Ames. She favors long shots that just show the things Joe is seeing as he travels from place to place. I daresay some people will find the movie slow or even dull.

I think it has a darkling loveliness that’s hard to compare. The inharmonious musical score and soundtrack of old songs, especially “Angel Baby,” lend the film a creeping nostalgia. Phoenix is moody and mesmerizing, worth the price of admission all on his own.

In the end, “You Were Never Really There” is an existential portrait of a killer, someone who sees himself as utterly empty, who only realizes the value of things after he has lost them.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Video review: "The Post"

In a time when journalism in general and newspapers in particular are under so much attack -- both from economic tidal forces within the industry and political assaults from the White House --- here is a good old-fashioned drama very much in the vein of “All the President’s Men” that extols those who risk much for the simple reward of telling the truth.

“The Post” is Steven Spielberg’s ode to an era when journalists and newspapers risked all to inform the public, and also a summoning of that same spirit in a time when it’s needed more than ever.

“This is who we were,” the film practically chants, and exhorts. “This is what we can be again.”

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks play Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee, the owner/publisher and editor of The Washington Post, respectively. In 1972 their rival, the New York Times, first published excerpts of the Pentagon Papers, a damning recitation of the nation’s failures in Vietnam, before a court injunction slammed down on them.

The Post team -- which also includes Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon and David Cross -- got hold of the papers and had a choice to make: publish, and face the quite literal possibility of putting the Post out of business, or press on. We all know the choice they made, but “The Post” is the story of what went on behind that agonizing decision.

Hanks is great -- he always is -- but Streep is the pivotal figure in the story. We learn about her own insecurities, a rich debutante inheriting the Post from her late husband; about what it takes to be a female leader in a time when women were routinely not listened to; and about the financial crisis that coincided with the decision, in which Graham took the company public on the stock exchange.

Part legal procedural, part historical drama, but most of all a portrait of the power -- and risks -- of journalism, “The Post” is director Steven Spielberg’s best film since “Lincoln.”

Bonus features are quite good. In a clever twist, they’re divided into sections like a newspaper would be. The DVD has:
  • “The Style Section: Re-Creating of an Era,” which explores the look and feel of the Washington Post newsroom in the 1970s.
  • “Arts and Entertainment: Music for the Post,” about the 44-year partnership between Spielberg and composer John Williams.
  • “Stop the Presses: Filming The Post,” an on-set visit with Spielberg and crew during production.
Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition, and you add:
  • “Layout: Katharine Graham, Ben Bradlee & The Washington Post,” a look at the real-life personalities behind the legend.
  • “Editorial: The Cast and Characters of The Post,” about putting together the cast of performers.



Thursday, April 12, 2018

Review: "Rampage"

Just a short review today; Manuel Fernandez is handling the main review at The Film Yap, so  head over there to check it out.

"Rampage" is the best based-on-a-video-game movie I've ever seen. Granted, that's not saying much.

The roll call of these flicks ranges from the merely boring to the tragically awful. These movies tend to be big, loud and dumb. "Rampage" is too, but there's enough genuine fun in between the silliness to recommend it.

Dwayne "Not The Rock; OK, You Can Call Me The Rock" Johnson has his shtick down pretty well these days. I describe it as Flex and Smirk, Smirk and Flex, Flex and SCOWL... and Flex.

His characters (Davis Okoye) may have some other job description -- he's a primatologist here -- but he's always the biggest, baddest dude around. Woefully inadequate T-shirts fail to contain all his muscley muscleness. He is accomplished at hand-to-hand combat, firing big guns and piloting helicopters, because isn't that a skillset everyone at the San Diego zoo has?

If you don't remember the 1986 arcade game, it allowed players to control one of three giant monsters -- an ape, George; a wolf, Ralph; or a lizard, Lizzie -- destroying the city. You got to smash buildings, punch fire engines to smithereens and eat distressed damsels. It was great fun.

"Rampage" gets us to this scenario by way of some convoluted mix of corporate greed and scientific mumbo-jump. A nasty company named EnerGyne was conducting illegal experiments in space, one got loose and exploded the place, but not before three samples of the genetic editing MacGuffin landed on Earth, turning normal creatures into gigantic, aggressive smash machines.

One of them was George, an albino gorilla at Davis' zoo with whom he has a special relationship. They communicate with each other via sign language, and even joke around and flip each other the bird. The CGI for George and the other critters is quite good, especially the expressions on George's face. Ralph has spikes and a few other tricks, while Lizzie seems to be part alligator, part boar.

Naomie Harris plays Kate Caldwell, the do-gooder scientist who's helping Davis save the day; Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy are the sneering sibling villains; Jeffrey Dean Morgan does his Negan thing in the guise of a Southern-fried FBI agent who apparently has the wherewithal to go anywhere, summon any resources, give lip to anybody he wants.

Once George gets infected and starts growing at a geometric rate, Davis tries to keep the authorities from going all bang-bang on him. But it doesn't work, and soon he's tracking the path of destruction Chicago, which is about to get a big bag of hurt.

"Rampage" isn't a great movie by any stretch, but it's a decent popcorn flick to kick off the summer movie season.