It Comes At Night (2017)

Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

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The greatest horror films are never just about scaring us.  The Exorcist or The Babadook may present us with demons, but they are really showing us the hidden evil in our own lives; every slasher flick is really a morality tale in which the smallest sins are harshly punished; and even Frankenstein or Dracula, in all their incarnations, are more about the twisted pathways of the human psyche than they are about the terrors of the supernatural.

Such movies, like fables from the Brothers Grimm, are cautionary tales which teach us lessons by tapping into our deepest fears.  Good filmmakers understand this, and they root the scares they deliver onscreen into something deeper than the artificial scenarios that provide them.  It Comes At Night, the new thriller from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, aspires to follow this example.

A grim parable about human nature masquerading as an apocalyptic survival tale, it centers on a small family (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) that have boarded themselves up at an isolated house in the woods after the outbreak of a terrifying plague which brings an agonizing death to anyone who contracts it.  When a surprise intruder turns out to be seeking water for his own nearby family, they decide to invite these strangers to live among them.  At first, the newcomers (Christopher Abbot, Riley Keogh, and Griffin Robert Faulkner) are a welcome addition to the household; but after a mysterious event sows the seeds of mistrust, the family begins to fear that inviting these outsiders into their home may have jeopardized their own survival.

Such a premise has direct connections to the kind of double-edged dramas featured on shows like The Twilight Zone, which often presented a “what if” microcosm in which to explore the hot-button issues of the day.  The parallel is highly apt to today’s world; in the age of Brexit and Trump, with its resurgence of Nationalism and xenophobia, existential fear has boiled to the surface of our communal awareness much in the way it did during those precarious days of the Cold War era.

Shults has adapted this time-tested formula for contemporary audiences; the conflict he presents reflects the concerns of our own time, but he doesn’t hammer home his point.  Rather, he invites us to make the connections for ourselves, and focuses his efforts instead on frightening us.

He begins his film with a traumatic sequence which establishes the horrors of its disease-borne threat while emotionally bonding us to the family at its center; he builds a tense and oppressive mood throughout, creating a sense of claustrophobia — even in the open forest outside the house – which underscores the pervading fear that there can be no real escape; he evokes a feverish delirium by progressively blending scenes of nightmare and reality until we have difficulty telling which is which; and he brings us to a ferocious climax which undercuts its inevitability by surprising us with devastating immediacy.

Apart from its opening and climactic sequences, however, It Comes At Night may fall short of expectation for many hardcore fright-seekers.  Although he provides plenty of creepy moments and jump-in-your-seat scares along the way, Shults has taken a less-is-more approach.  He seeks to disturb, not to terrify, and as a result the film plays more like psychodrama than horror.  This, of course, allows us the opportunity to recognize the allegorical threads of his story and connect them to the issues which it is his real agenda to address.

To a point, those connections are pretty clear.  The two families live in a world of fear, and must decide whether to cooperate or isolate, to help each other or look out for their own interests; the choices they make are clouded by paranoia and mistrust, and their ultimate survival likely depends on how well they are able to overcome those obstacles.  You can’t come up with a plainer metaphor for the challenge of living in a global community than that.

From there, though, things get a little vague.  Following the lead of such recent horror efforts as Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Shults deliberately masks the specifics of his story in such a way that many key events are left for the audience imagine for themselves.  This results in an ambiguity which forces us to draw our own conclusions about which approach is right — or indeed, whether it ultimately even matters which one we choose.

While this opaque approach lends itself well to multiple interpretations, it can also create the risk of muddy storytelling.  Unfortunately, this is the case with It Comes At Night.  Shults leaves a little too much to the imagination, resulting in enough uncertainty about the plot to leave us more confused than stimulated when the credits finally roll.  Indeed, this lack of clarity makes the film’s ending seem abrupt, and audiences are likely to go home with the feeling that they must have missed something important.

This is particularly disappointing in view of the movie’s deeper ambitions.  Though comparison is seldom fair, one cannot help but be reminded of this year’s earlier social-commentary-as-horror offering, Jordan Peele’s brilliant Get Out, a film which dazzled largely because of the clear and concise lines between its sensational plot and its slyly satirical observations.  The intentions are different here, of course, but Shults has chosen to blur his lines instead, and the result is a promise that never feels fulfilled.

This is not to say that It Comes At Night  is a failure; Shults is a gifted filmmaker, and he has succeeded well in crafting a moody and engaging thriller.  His cast is excellent, and the cinematography by Drew Daniels is a master class in atmosphere.  The pieces are all there, even if the film as a whole is unsatisfying.

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Blade Runner (1982)

zgfn3sotgl60bay4ftdnzqcxyiqWhen Ridley Scott’s dystopian neo-noir sci-fi opus opened in 1982, it was overshadowed at the box office – along with a number of other worthy films – by the juggernaut that was Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.”  Consequently, it was deemed by the then-reigning Hollywood pundits to be a misfire, and critics seemed to echo that sentiment; though praised for its imaginative visual design – now regarded as influential and iconic – and its provocative thematic explorations, it was greeted with middling reviews that, taken together, marked it as an “interesting failure.”

This lukewarm reception came at the end of a tense and difficult production process in which Scott, who had been far down the list of preferred directors for this long-awaited adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” went severely over budget and seriously past due – eventually losing creative control of the final cut and being forced to bow to studio executives’ demands to cut the running time by nearly half and add a voice-over narration to clarify what they felt to be a confusing plot.

Despite its painful birthing process (and perhaps, in part, because of it), “Blade Runner” went on to become a cult favorite, with an ever-growing legion of fans, and to be re-evaluated by critics – even making appearances high on their lists of the best science fiction films of all time.  Ultimately, thanks to its growing reputation, Scott released a series of alternate versions, culminating in “The Final Cut,” released in 2007, which restored several minutes of previously deleted material and dispensed with the much-hated narration, and which stands today as the definitive edition of the film.

To those new to it, “Blade Runner” is essentially a police procedural set in a future Los Angeles.  The title refers to the name given to special officers whose job it is to track down and eliminate “replicants” – artificial humans created as an off-world labor force who are now outlawed on earth.  One such officer, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), is tasked with tracking down and killing a renegade group of these beings who have defied the ban to come in search of answers from their creator.  Constructed as a pulp-fiction detective story in the nostalgic vein of Raymond Chandler, the plot winds its morally ambiguous way through a shadowy underworld – replete with femmes fatale, corrupt officials, secret alliances, and deep conspiracies – towards a final showdown that forces Deckard (and the audience) to question what it means to be “human.”

Revisiting this seminal work over three decades later, those who grew up with it may find it challenging to separate its authentic merits from their fond memories; likewise, those new to its affected mix of high-concept style and gritty action may fail to recognize its impact on a genre whose subsequent development owes it so much.  There are also those, in both groups, who might find its slow-moving plot and relative lack of action sequences less appealing than the genre’s bigger, splashier counterparts.

Nevertheless, there are a number of good reasons why “Blade Runner” has had staying power.

To begin with, there’s the incredible, immersive reality that Scott (along with production designer Laurence G. Paull and special effects supervisor Douglas Trumball) so painstakingly assembled to represent the Los Angeles of then-distant 2019.  Densely overpopulated with an ethnic blend of citizens (predominantly of Asian descent), lit by garish neon, and dominated by advertisements projected at massive scale in every available space, it’s a claustrophobic metropolis that is at once dazzlingly futuristic and depressingly familiar – the logical extension of corporate consumerism run wild and rampant urban decay left unchecked.  Though the causes for this state of affairs are never specifically addressed within the dialogue, the world of the film needs no words to express the volumes of social criticism inherent in its design.  It’s a magnificent example of one of science fiction’s primary functions – to serve as a warning against the worst tendencies of our own world – executed to perfection, and it has justly become a blueprint for world-building in countless films within the genre, ever since.

Then there’s the way it addresses the subject of artificial intelligence.  “Blade Runner” was certainly not the first movie to introduce the notion of an A.I. becoming sentient or developing emotion, but in its deeply philosophical treatment of the idea – and its portraits of its remarkable anti-hero, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his sidekick/lover, Pris (Daryl Hannah) – it goes beyond the usual cautionary approach to address the ethical dilemmas presented by drawing a line between human and non-human life.  These characters are vicious, violent, cruel – but they are not unsympathetic, nor are they without justification.  Rather, their behavior is easily understood as the result of exploitation, mistreatment, and disregard by a system that presumes their lives have no inherent value.  That they rebel against their oppressors is not only understandable, it is unsurprising; and the fact that, in their suffering, they have developed a sense of loyalty to each other and empathy towards others (whether or not they are governed by it) places them in stark contrast to most of the “human” characters we see in the film.  This concept of the misunderstood creation at odds with its creator hearkens back, of course, to that ancestor of all modern sci-fi stories, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” but by placing it in the context of this grimly foreseeable future, “Blade Runner” reminds us that the questions it raises are perhaps more relevant than ever.

There are many other factors that contribute to the film’s lasting impact.  The commitment to its noir milieu is not only consistent, but brilliantly apt for a story set within this world of shadows (both actual and metaphorical), and the way this cinematic conceit is meshed with the stylish visual influences of the era in which it was conceived is, at times, breathtakingly artful.  Electronic composer Vangelis envelops the action (and the audience) with his lush, moody, and elegiac score, which evokes the epic scope of both the story’s setting and its philosophical ambitions.  Perhaps most importantly, the screenplay, by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, provides a solid base for the entire package; it weaves complex ideas and implications into a story which both expands upon the source material and remains essentially faithful to it, and it does so through dialogue which echoes the hard-boiled style of the cinematic movement to which it pays homage.

Of course there are also the performances.  Ford, fresh from his first appearance as Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and in between his second and third turns as Han Solo in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, was at the peak of his appeal and popularity when he stepped into the title role of Scott’s movie (thought he, like the director, was nowhere near the first choice for the project); though at first his cocky persona seems somehow out of joint with the dreary world portrayed here, it is this that makes him a perfect fit for a character whose experiences will awaken the humanity buried beneath his cynical exterior.  Deckard is the direct extension of every smart-ass gumshoe portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the classic film noir of the forties and fifties, and Ford – who rarely gets the credit he deserves for his acting skills – brings that same diamond-in-the-rough essence to the role.  His performance here may not be as iconic as the ones that cemented his status as one of his generation’s biggest stars, but it is just as engaging – and considering the complexity of Deckard’s emotional journey, maybe more impressive.

Sean Young, another star whose acting talents are often overlooked (particularly in the wake of the career-stifling reputation she earned – fairly or unfairly – in the years following her appearance here), is equally well-matched to her role.  More than just a love interest provided to add obligatory romance to the plot, Rachael turns out to be an important element in the film’s brooding meditation on the nature of sentience and humanity; revealed early on to be an advanced replicant herself, the attraction she shares with Deckard becomes central to the self-discovery that parallels his investigations, and much of what makes it believable comes from Young – ethereal yet grounded, distant yet warm, fragile yet confident, she provides a perfect complement to Ford’s energy and gives their pairing a resonance that reinforces its ultimate significance to the larger saga.  She deserves as much credit for the depth of her performance as she does for the stunning beauty she brings to the screen – particularly in her signature look, the forties high-fashion ensemble she wears in her early scenes, which has become emblematic of the film.

As Batty, the replicant ringleader bent on confronting the man who made him, Hauer – previously acclaimed in his native Netherlands – became an American movie star in his own right; his intelligence, intensity, and charisma burns from the screen, putting the audience on his character’s side from his first entrance despite the seemingly thoughtless brutality of his actions.  His climactic confrontation with Deckard, which ends in the sort of Messianic epiphany that might be a difficult sell for many actors, is electric – a powerfully moving star turn that gives “Blade Runner” its greatest weight and ensures its status as a work above the level of many more ambitious science fiction dramas than this one.

Another star-making performance comes from Hannah, whose portrayal of Pris – less advanced than her cohort Batty, but every bit as remarkable – conveys the perfect combination of little-girl-lost naïveté and subtly gleeful sadism, making her as appealing as she is lethal.  As the other two replicants on the lam, Brion James and Joanna Cassidy each have unforgettable scenes of their own.

William Sanderson is heartbreaking as the haplessly unwitting ally enlisted to aid and abet the fugitives in their quest for answers.  Joseph Turkel (as Eldon Tyrell, the powerful genius behind the creation of artificial humans) captures the aloof benevolence of the untouchable elite; a major player in two of the film’s key scenes, his performance makes them all the more memorable.

Though his role is a small one, Edward James Olmos also makes a deep impression as Gaff, the police lackey who serves as a watchdog for the chief (M. Emmett Walsh, also memorable, as always); speaking mostly in a hybrid street slang – derived from different Asian languages – and occupying his hands by making origami figures that provide mocking commentary of Deckard, his sinister presence exudes the hunger of a jackal waiting for its opportunity to pounce – yet he remains inscrutable enough for us to believe that he just might, in the end, turn out to be an unexpected ally.

Whether or not he does, of course, is one of the most enduring questions generated by “Blade Runner” – alongside the possibly related one of whether or not Deckard himself may unknowingly be a replicant.  The answers to those, and myriad others which arise within this unlikely jewel of eighties popular cinema, are ultimately left to the viewer.  This tantalizing ambiguity leaves us, like Batty and his cadre of artificial soul-seekers, with a powerful yearning that has proven strong enough to justify a sequel, 35 years later.

It’s also what has ultimately made Scott’s “interesting failure” an enduring legend that can stand alongside- and, in most cases, overshadow – many of the better-received films of its era.

Trumbo (2015)

mv5bmjm1mdc2otq3nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzq0njq1nje-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Pride L.A.

When most younger Americans hear the phrase “Cold War,” it likely conjures vague impressions of backyard bomb shelters and spy vs. spy intrigue in far-flung corners of the world; but when confronted with the acronym “HUAC,” odds are good that many of them will be able to come up with nothing more than a blank stare.  That’s a pity, because in today’s political climate, the history of the House Un-American Activity Committee should be an essential cornerstone of our cultural knowledge.  For that reason alone, “Trumbo,” director Jay Roach’s new biopic about the most prominent member of the so-called “Hollywood Ten,” is a must-see.

I won’t go into detail about the anti-Communist hysteria in post-WWII America- after all, this is a film review, not a history lesson.  Suffice to say that Dalton Trumbo was a prominent Hollywood screenwriter, called before congress to answer questions about his affiliations to the American Communist Party.  Standing on his constitutional rights, he refused to cooperate; not only was he convicted of contempt, political pressure on the Hollywood establishment resulted in a blacklist which prevented the hiring of film artists who would not testify before the congressional committee, and he was left with no means to make a living despite being one of the most lauded scribes in the industry.  “Trumbo,” recounts this history, and goes on from there to detail the story of the writer’s determined climb out of the ashes.

John McNamara’s screenplay focuses its attention on the man himself, giving us a whirlwind tour of his 13-year struggle, and intertwining the political with the personal through an emphasis on private scenes- as well as some healthy dashes of humor along the way.  Through the periphery of Trumbo’s story, we are given glimpses of careers destroyed, lives ruined, and good people forced to betray their friends and their ideals.  The result is a film that delivers a timely socio-political warning about governmental overreach, disguised as a safe, middle-of-the-road narrative.

Some might argue that the story of this dark chapter in Hollywood history might be better told by a less “Hollywood” movie.  Even through its darkest moments, we know that the hero will triumph and the powers that oppress him will be vanquished.  Most were not so lucky; their careers were permanently derailed, and the few survivors still had to wait years after the blacklist fell before getting work.  In addition, though it strives to convey the complex ethics of the situation, it paints at least one character (notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) as a clear target for the audience’s moral outrage without offering any satisfactory insight into the motivations which may have driven her.  It should also be said that “Trumbo” “re-arranges” facts for smoother story-telling- standard movie-making procedure, perhaps, but regrettable, nonetheless.

Such quibbling aside, the film delivers a solid, honorable account of a determined man’s journey through darkness.  Contributing to that is a meticulous recreation of the mid-century period, achieved through set and costume designs that convey the passage of time by reflecting subtle changes in the prevailing styles.  More important, though, are the strong performances, provided by an ensemble ranging from familiar Oscar-winners to relative unknowns.  A few standouts: Michael Stuhlberg, portraying actor Edward G. Robinson through suggestion rather than impersonation; John Goodman, hilarious as the no-nonsense producer who employed Trumbo during the blacklist; and Helen Mirren as Hopper, who reveals the tough-as-nails power-player masquerading as a blowsy busybody while still managing to give us glimmers of her humanity- despite the script’s failure to do so.

The impressive cast, however, rightly takes a back seat to Bryan Cranston, who displays his astonishing range with every subtle shift of expression.  He completely inhabits the larger-than-life Trumbo with an authenticity that never makes him seem affected.  He’s a delight to watch- the image of him doggedly typing away in the bathtub is bound to become iconic- but never afraid to show us Trumbo’s ugly side; and despite his exceptional work throughout, he saves the best for his final, moving recreation of a late-in-life speech that and leaves us with a powerful impression of Trumbo’s integrity.

That integrity, of course, is a given from the beginning of the film; but “Trumbo” is not meant to surprise.  It is meant, rather, to retell of a story that should always be retold.  As its postscript reminds us, the Communist witch hunt affected people in all segments of the population, not just members of the Hollywood elite.  Though set in a time gone by, the film is chillingly contemporary; and if paranoia and political opportunism can combine to persecute a wealthy white man, then who is really safe?  It’s easy to point out that none of us are Trumbo- but his story serves as a reminder that he could be any one of us.

Argo (2012)

Argo (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Argo, the winner of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Picture, directed (and starring) Ben Affleck and offering a fictionalized chronicle of the real-life rescue of six American refugees from Tehran during the 1979-1980 Iranian hostage crisis.  With a screenplay by Chris Terrio (who also won an Oscar for his work) and a talented ensemble cast that includes veteran actors Alan Arkin and John Goodman, as well as acclaimed Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, it was an instant critical and financial success upon its release, revitalizing Affleck’s career and garnering much praise for its intelligent, character-driven approach to the story- though it has also received criticism for its use of embellishments and fabrications to increase the drama of its narrative, as well as for its selective arrangement of facts to maximize its pro-American sentiments.

Based on Tony Mendez’ personal memoir, The Master of Disguise, and Joshuah Bearman’s magazine account of the mission, “Escape from Tehran,” Argo begins with the 1979 storming of Tehran’s U.S. embassy by militants following the Iranian revolution which supplanted the American-backed Shah with radical Islamic cleric Ayatollah Khomeni as leader of the nation.  The embassy staff have barely enough time to shred their confidential papers before they are taken hostage by the angry throng, who seek to exchange them to the U.S. for the return of the former Shah, so that he can be tried and executed by the new revolutionary government.  Unbeknown to the militants, however, six Americans have managed to escape through a side door, and have found refuge in the Canadian embassy; as the world’s attention turns to the tense diplomatic standoff over the captive diplomats, the C.I.A. tries to develop a plan for the safe extraction of these secret fugitives before the Iranian militants can discover their existence.  Called in to consult, “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez hatches an unlikely plot by which the six can be safely flown out of the country under the very noses of the Iranian government; posing as a Canadian film producer, he will enter Iran under the pretext of scouting exotic locations for a new science fiction epic, then- with the aid of falsified passports provided by the Canadian government- the six refugees can depart with him, posing as his film crew.  With the help of a Hollywood contact- Oscar-winning makeup designer John Chambers- Mendez enlists a famous producer to help set up a production company for his phony epic, thereby establishing a convincing cover story through the Hollywood publicity machine, and with all the pieces in place, sets out for Tehran to enact his outrageous plan.  Before he can succeed, though, he must first convince the six terrified diplomats to cooperate with the scheme and turn them into a believable facsimile of a movie crew; to further complicate matters, the ever-changing political tides at home threaten to undermine C.I.A. support for the mission, and the Iranians- who are painstakingly restoring the shredded embassy records- are on the verge of discovering that there are six Americans still unaccounted for and at large somewhere within the city.  With time running out and no other option besides eventual capture and probable execution, there is no choice but to follow through with their desperate ruse and hope that their luck holds out.

In crafting a screenplay from these true-life events, Terrio has created, in essence, a caper film; the story is molded in the classic form of an adventure in which a diverse team of mismatched characters must work together to execute an elaborate scheme, wherein intricate planning and precise timing- and a healthy dose of good luck- are required to achieve success.   The premise is not far removed from such films as The Sting or Ocean’s 11, except that instead of a heist the players are attempting an escape.  Since the outcome is a matter of relatively well-known history, the challenge is to generate suspense as the action unfolds; in order to achieve this, the writer wisely chose to focus much of his attention on the personalities of the people involved, heightening the suspense with a personal dynamic that places much of the interest in seeing how these various characters manage to rise to the challenges they face.  This allows for a strong sense of ensemble among the actors and a layered tapestry of nuanced performances, bringing the plot to life with a richness that evokes the character-driven political dramas of the era in which Argo takes place.

The other tactic by which the movie creates suspense, while it is standard practice in the dramatization of true events, could be considered a bit of a cheat; Terrio has fabricated a number of circumstances within the narrative that did not occur in real life.  The six American escapees were never in imminent danger of detection by the Iranian militants, nor was there any suspicion or investigation of the Canadian embassy while they were lodged there; the C.I.A. never withdrew support for the rescue mission, and the Carter administration approved the plan well before the eleventh-hour climax portrayed in the film; and when the time came for the clandestine travelers to make their escape, they walked easily onto the plane and flew out of the country without so much as a second glance by the security at the airport.  Using artistic license is certainly an accepted method- even an expected one- for creating a more eventful and exciting film narrative, and it serves well in Argo, though historical purists may quibble; more questionable are the deliberate omissions and slanted characterizations that diminish the real-life role played by the Canadians in the operation, cast the British and other governments in an unsympathetic light, and depict the Iranians in a manner which reinforces an already problematic cultural bias.  Nevertheless, setting aside questions of fairness or historical accuracy in what is, after all, a movie “based on” a true story (as opposed to a recreation of actual events), Terrio’s screenplay is a superb piece of Hollywood myth-making, building a gripping and compelling story out of its concern for character instead of the intricacies of the plot, and doing it with a great deal of intelligence and- both surprisingly and refreshingly- a great deal of humor.

As for Affleck’s direction of the piece, he picks up the obvious connection of Argo to seventies cinema and uses it as the basis for his mise-en-scène; though modern day technical trickery has been used to achieve certain ends (such as the transformation of the Istanbul filming locations into the city of Tehran and the dilapidated state of the iconic “Hollywood” sign- another historical inaccuracy, since the landmark was actually restored a full year before the events depicted in Argo), the visual milieu of his movie is constructed with a deliberate eye towards capturing the time and place in which it takes place.  There are no ostentatious displays of effects wizardry, no high-def action sequences designed to dazzle and distract; Argo is made to look and feel like a product of seventies sensibility, with influences drawn from such films as All the President’s Men and an authentically grainy look to Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography- achieved by shooting on film, cutting the images down by half, then blowing them up 200%.  Affleck heavily utilizes authentic archival footage from the real historical events, both within the film (as TV newscasts) and as a guide for recreating the environment; the costumes (by Jacqueline West) are superbly realized recreations of late-seventies fashion, executed with authenticity rather than caricature (though in some instances- such as the scene in which a bogus cast, decked out in a ludicrous, disco-influenced wardrobe of campy science fiction designs, assembles for a read-through of the fictional film- the line between caricature and authenticity is non-existent); and all the trappings of the film’s environment- the architecture of the carefully chosen locations, the sensibility of the décor, even the artistic style of the various corporate logos and advertising which are almost omnipresent in the background- contribute tremendously towards transporting us back to this not-too-distant time in our cultural history.

Affleck’s work in coordinating all these technical asepects is impressive enough in itself, but his handling of Argo is also polished from the perspective of cinematic storytelling.  He keeps the movie moving at a pace which is tight but never hurried, superbly utilizing cross-edited footage to move different elements of the story simultaneously; he captures the claustrophobic experience of the American refugees with tight close-ups and jerky hand-held shots, he suggests the bustle of governmental bureaucracy with scenes of offices in constant motion and characters endlessly walking down long corridors (bristling with purpose, of course), and he evokes the loneliness of his protagonist’s chosen career with artfully composed scenes of his isolation in the midst of crowds, sumptuous rooms, and exotic locations.  It’s a strong, workmanlike effort, undoubtedly the young director’s best work to date, and though it is not exactly visionary or groundbreaking in nature, it is exactly fit to the material he is presenting; his omission as a nominee for the Best Director Oscar is certainly an oddity, particularly considering that he won the honor at many of the other awards ceremonies and that his film eventually took the Best Picture prize- though such a seeming paradox is not unheard of, as Oscar trivia buffs will quickly point out.  Honors and awards aside, Argo is a career-changing work for Affleck, and will doubtless provide the momentum for future projects which will (hopefully) stretch his artistic boundaries even further.

The cast, a crack ensemble of skilled professionals ranging from old hands to promising newcomers, does an excellent job across the board; there is a singleness of vision in the performances that allows each individual player to shine without any one of them seeming to stand out above the others.  The most screen time, of course, belongs to Affleck, and though his self-casting as the half-latino Mendez has generated some raised eyebrows from those who feel a more culturally appropriate choice would have been better, he makes for a likable hero, a man whose personal issues provide the impetus to redeem himself through his professional duties.  Bryan Cranston is memorable as Mendez’ superior, fleshing out what amounts to a stock character with rich personality, and Victor Garber is the picture of genteel compassion as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who harbors the fugitive Americans and- historically, at any rate, if not within the context of Argo­– was the primary engineer of the plan to get them to safety.  As the harried refugees, a sextet of actors- Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, and Kerry Bishé- creates distinctive portraits of each one despite a shortage of screen time, with McNairy given the most prominent of these roles as a skeptical holdout to the plan who ends up playing a crucial part in its success.  A number of familiar faces also turn up in smaller parts, but the film’s biggest stars, in the two most colorful roles, are the great Alan Arkin and John Goodman, as the two Hollywood players who make Mendez’ subterfuge possible.  In a movie that casts the movie industry itself in a heroic role, it is only fitting that its representatives should be larger than life, and both of these fine actors fit the bill.  Goodman is characteristically robust and colorful as makeup designer John Chambers, but Arkin is particularly effective as fictional producer Lester Seigel (in real life the producer of the bogus movie was impersonated by an associate of Chambers’ named Robert Sidell), letting us see the pull of a deeper purpose in his choice to become involved with the mission.

Argo is a movie that is hard to fault, in terms of execution.  It features top-notch work all around and tells a story which is important to American cultural identity and has clear implications within the current political situation (in regards to the still-strained relationship with Iran).  It addresses, by implication, the consequences of former American policies in the Middle East, and it offers a chance to cheer for heroic deeds that transcend the ever-shifting needs of politics.  For my own part, I can admire the work done here by Affleck and company, but I can’t help but wish it had been done without the omissions and exaggerations that create a false impression of the roles of various participants in the saga- both national and individual.  Drama, traditionally, has always played fast and loose with facts in the interest of telling a good story, but this particular story may be a bit too close to home for such tactics to be entirely appropriate, and as a result, no matter how effective Argo is as entertainment, it smacks, vaguely, of propaganda.  Though it is an exemplary piece of intelligent popular filmmaking,  Affleck’s movie panders more than a little to its audience in the way that it manages to avoid taking either a liberal or conservative stance on its subject, adopting populist attitudes and embracing clichéd assumptions, and presenting America in a way that allows us to recognize its flaws while still feeling good about it.  As a result, it narrowly misses the mark of true greatness and instead settles firmly on the ground of romanticized dream factory escapism.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that; far too few big film projects achieve that ideal with as much success and integrity as Argo.  Clearly, given its tally of major industry awards, it’s a movie that strikes all the right chords, and even if it does so by means of manipulation, that is, after all, what filmmakers do.  Nevertheless, of the six (out of nine) nominees for the Best Picture Oscar of 2012 that I have thus far seen, Argo would have been my last choice for the winner.  It’s a very good movie, solid, polished, and safe; but if you expect to be blown away- as the accumulated hype may by now have led you to- you are likely to wonder what all the fuss was about.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1024648/?ref_=sr_1

Serpico (1973)

Serpico (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Serpico, the 1973 classic by director Sidney Lumet, based on the true story of the first New York police officer to speak up about the widespread graft and corruption in the city’s police force, featuring Al Pacino in an iconic early performance that cemented his status as one of Hollywood’s hottest stars and offering one of the finest examples of the kind of gritty, authentic filmmaking that made the seventies one of the richest and most influential decades in the history of cinema.  Shot entirely on location in the streets and interiors of New York City, it was made on a budget of a million dollars- small even for the time- and made over 30 times that amount at the box office, riding on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment that had begun in the late sixties; its financial success helped pave the way for a sort of mini-genre that exposed injustice and corruption in government while exploring the difficulty of maintaining individual honor and integrity in such a dishonest system- a theme found in many of the period’s greatest films, reflecting the zeitgeist of an era marked by disillusionment in the powers that be and a growing mistrust of once-respected institutions of authority.

Adapted from Peter Maas’ bestselling book, the film follows the true story of policeman Frank Serpico beginning with his graduation from the New York police academy and his subsequent rapid rise from beat cop to plainclothes detective; a dedicated and exceptional officer, he excels at his job, using his spirit of innovation and his street-savvy sensibility to become the best cop he can be.  Along the way, however, he repeatedly encounters colleagues who resort to unethical behavior- physical abuse of suspects, accepting handouts and bribes, and, most pervasively, extorting money in the form of shakedowns and payoffs from criminals in exchange for looking the other way.  It’s a tradition that seems to be as old as the police force itself, and one in which everyone is expected to participate; those who refuse are viewed with suspicion, intimidated, scorned, and threatened by other officers.  Though at first Serpico is able to remain aloof to the widespread corruption, the pressure from his colleagues eventually becomes unbearable; he tries to take action through official channels inside the police department, only to find that the entire chain of command- all the way to the top- seems bent more on ignoring and covering up the problem.  When he finally joins forces with a lawyer friend and takes his story to the Mayor’s office, he is again rebuffed.  When his personal life also begins to crumble due to the emotional strain of his professional situation, he finally decides to go public, telling his story to the press and forcing the department to begin a widespread internal investigation.  It is Serpico’s testimony that will be the key to exposing the extensive wrongdoing on the force; perceived as a traitor to his fellow policemen, he is soon placed deliberately in danger while on duty, set up by his partners during a drug bust; shot in the face and abandoned at the scene, he nevertheless survives to bear witness at the hearings conducted by the Knapp Commission, a government agency set up to investigate largely because of his determination to make his story heard.

Though the screenplay for Serpico does take a few liberties with the true events, it is for the most part a faithful depiction of the real story.  Maas’ book, written with the participation of the real Frank Serpico, was adapted faithfully for the screen by Waldo Salt, with later modifications by Norman Wexler, who restructured the narrative when director Lumet decided it was too long.  In order to pack the decade-long saga into a manageable running time, the story is told in a sort of collage, constructed of mostly short scenes which document the progression of events over time; most of the faces change as Serpico is variously transferred throughout the department and makes changes in his personal life, but the thread of continuity is maintained by the main character’s presence at the center throughout and the unchanging circumstances of his dilemma- though the names and places may be different, the underlying situation is always there, showing not only the widespread nature of the problem but suggesting, by extension, that such corruption is a universal issue.  It’s an approach which also helps to reduce the sense that we are seeing a “movie” with actors (though many of them are recognizable faces), lending the piece instead a feeling of genuine, fly-on-the-wall credibility.  This kind of pseudo-documentary authenticity was no doubt enhanced by Serpico’s direct involvement; he was initially present on the set during shooting, until Lumet and producer Martin Bregman deemed him too distracting (or, perhaps, too intimidating) for the cast, and he was Pacino’s guest for several weeks at a rented house in Montauk, where the actor spent time with him in order to gain insight in preparation for the role.

The slice-of-life perspective Serpico uses to take us through this true story of heroism is ultimately made possible by its director.  Sidney Lumet was a filmmaker with a long and varied career, starting as a child actor on Broadway (indeed, the memorable party scene early in the film was shot in the apartment of Sidney Kingsley, the playwright who hired the 11-year-old Lumet to appear in the original production of his classic Dead End), whose studied, realistic approach and emphasis on the psychology of his characters had developed through years of work in the theatre and the early days of live television drama, and had made him the kind of “actor’s director” perfect for helming the strong, character-driven films that dominated the cinematic heyday of the mid-seventies.  Marked by a refusal to sentimentalize and an observational sensibility that allows both an empirical detachment and an intensely emotional connectivity, his style reached its peak during this era when polished Hollywood glamour was supplanted by a stripped-down, cinéma vérité honesty in popular filmmaking, and nowhere is it more clearly on display than in Serpico.  He wasn’t the first choice for the project, however; originally slated to direct was John G. Avildsen, but creative differences with Bregman led to his eleventh-hour replacement- a fortuitous twist of artistic fate, for it’s nearly impossible to imagine the film through the lens of another director.  Lumet’s instincts are a perfect match to Serpico’s story, and his  love for the craft of filmmaking- and for the city of New York, in all its contrasting splendor and squalor, photographed with equal reverence by Arthur G. Ornitz- is as evident as his technical skill here, helping to capture a visceral, on-the-scene portrait not just of the city, but of its people, and transporting us so completely into the place and time that we feel we know it as well as if we were there ourselves.  It’s a more genuine environment than most of the plastic-and-glass urban settings we see in modern police dramas, and one that reflects the economic reality of urban bureaucracy; it also provides a tangible sense of the rough-edged, oppressive conditions which may contribute, in some way, to the temptation for many to abuse their positions for personal gain.  Lumet’s most powerful and effective tool though, is the respect he gives his actors, allowing them to command every scene and placing primary emphasis, always, on their characterizations.  There are no flashy feats of camera artistry here; Lumet uses his lens unobtrusively, in full service of his cast, knowing that the story comes to life through them, and not through cinematic trickery.

Specifically, of course, it comes to life through the actor at its center.  Al Pacino, already proven as an intense and charismatic performer through his star-making role in The Godfather, solidified his status as one of “New Hollywood’s” hottest talents with his scorching portrayal of the title role; he gives us a man of intelligence, humor, compassion and honor, without being afraid to show us his flaws with equal honesty.  His Serpico is a hero whose fight for moral integrity also becomes a fight against himself, as the escalating frustration and pressure bring out his anger, depression, pettiness and self-doubt, and Pacino lets us have it all in an unvarnished and compelling tour-de-force that deservedly earned him an array of award nominations and wins.  It’s all the more remarkable in light of the fact that the film was shot in reverse sequence, in order to accommodate the changes in Serpico’s appearance.  Since his facial hair was required to become progressively more pronounced throughout the story, Pacino grew out his hair and beard before shooting began, and then gradually trimmed it back throughout the course of production; it is routine for a movie to be shot out of sequence, but even so, the clarity of Serpico’s emotional throughline is astonishing, considering it was achieved, essentially, backwards.  Though Pacino carries the vast majority of the film himself, he is surrounded by a fine gallery of supporting players, most significantly Tony Roberts, lending his dry and urbane charm to the role of the department lawyer who becomes Serpico’s friend and ally, and including such stalwart and familiar (or soon-to-be-familiar) actors as John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Lewis J. Stadlen, F. Murray Abraham, M. Emmet Walsh, Judd Hirsch, and Tony Lo Bianco.  The entire cast becomes fully immersed in the film’s reality, without a single “actorish” performance among them- though Barbara Eda-Young and Cornelia Sharpe, as the two significant women in Serpico’s life, seem stiff and more than a little out of their depth as they attempt to share the screen with their formidable co-star.

Serpico, when it was released four decades ago, was as topical and current a movie as you could get, offering for consideration a subject and story fresh from the nightly newscasts and the national papers.  Today, of course, it seems somewhat dated, to the casual viewer; the world it shows us, though utterly authentic in its day, now feels almost quaint, a nostalgic reminder of a time before cell phones and computer networks became standard operating equipment and video surveillance equipment captured virtually every move an officer could make on duty.  The environment and the situations strike us as a pastiche of familiar cop show clichés threaded with liberal naïveté; indeed, the corruption of Serpico’s fellow officers is amateur stuff compared with the staggering cases of corporate and governmental chicanery that have come to light, over and over, in the years that have gone by since.  Even so, Serpico remains a powerful cinematic document of its time and place, infused with a sense of moral outrage and antiestablishment fervor that is still quite capable of moving us.  Much of this has to do with Pacino’s electrifying, impassioned performance, of course; but it’s the film’s focus, built into its screenplay and shrewdly maintained by its director, that ultimately allows it to transcend its era and stand as more than a well-crafted period piece.  Lumet doesn’t care about the details of the corruption against which his hero fights- the nuts and bolts of the investigation are passed over in his movie, with only enough specific circumstance to set the stage for the real drama that concerns him.  That drama is not about the external events of Serpico’s life, but about the effect those events have on his inner self- the struggle, the emotional stress, the conflicting guilt that comes of being forced to betray one deeply held ideal in order to uphold another.  Serpico emerges, most of all, as a meditation on heroism- not the guts-and-glory kind that is usually the focus of police dramas, but the kind required to withstand the inner turmoil that makes standing up for your principles something that is easier said than done.  It offers us a portrait of a real life figure willing to sacrifice the thing which mattered most to him- being a cop- in order to be right with his own conscience, and it does so without the kind of cloying sentimentality that so often makes such movies feel more insincere than inspirational.  The real-life Frank Serpico told Al Pacino, when the actor asked him why he decided to come forward about the corruption inside the NYPD, that he had done it because, “if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?”  It’s a rare man who can recognize the importance of such a distinction, and a rare movie that can help us recognize it, too.  Serpico is such a movie, and that in itself- even more than the towering performance of its star- is what makes it a classic.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070666/?ref_=sr_1

 

Paths of Glory (1957)

Paths of Glory (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Paths of Glory, the 1957 World War I drama by Stanley Kubrick, an early example of the filmmaker’s much-lauded mastery of the cinematic medium starring Kirk Douglas as a French colonel who finds himself caught in the middle when the personal and political motivations of his superiors force him to order his men on an impossible mission.  Based on a 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb that was itself inspired by a true-life incident, it was a project spearheaded by Kubrick- who had read the book as a youth- when the critical success of his low-budget film, The Killing, got him hired to develop projects for MGM production head Dore Schary.  Though Schary rejected Paths of Glory for its lack of commercial appeal, he was eventually fired from the studio, freeing Kubrick and his producer, James Harris, to shop it elsewhere, and they managed to salvage their film by gaining the interest of actor Douglas, whose enthusiasm and guaranteed participation allowed them to find backing at United Artists.  With its harsh anti-war sentiments, its cynical take on military politics, and its bleak ending, nobody anticipated it would be a box office hit; it did, however, fare better than expected, despite heavy controversy in the European market- it was withheld from release in France for several years due to diplomatic protests, and it was heavily edited in other countries.  More importantly, in the long term, it earned massive critical acclaim for its director, thrusting him further along on his own “path of glory” towards his future status as one of the all-time great auteurs in the history of cinema.

Paths of Glory is set at the French western front in 1916, where the soldiers endure the hellish conditions of trench warfare while their executive superiors reside in the luxurious nearby palace that has been temporarily transformed into military headquarters.  It is in the comfort of the latter location that General Mireau, who oversees a division near the key German position known as “the Anthill,” is visited by his superior, General Broulard, a member of the French General Staff.  Broulard has come to propose an attempt by Mireau’s men to take the heavily fortified German stronghold, a mission which, if successful, could win favorable response for the French war effort in the press and the political arena- and presumably advance the careers of the military commanders involved.  At first, Mireau is adamant in his refusal of the commission, citing the impossibility of the task and the devastating casualties that would be inflicted on his soldiers; when Broulard brings up the possibility of an upcoming promotion, however, which might be adversely affected by his choice, the ambitious subordinate quickly changes his mind, and agrees to order his troops to make the attack.  Mireau makes a visit to the trenches, a hellish war zone under a continuous blanket of shelling and gunfire, where he takes the time to exchange a few military platitudes with the already demoralized men- and deliver a strict dressing down to one shell-shocked soldier whom he accuses of being a coward- before delivering his orders to the division’s commander, Colonel Dax.  Dax, a dedicated soldier and a capable leader, is likewise skeptical of their chances for success, deeming the attack a suicide mission, but when the general threatens to relieve him of his command, he reluctantly agrees to lead his men in the attempt- though he knows the cost in human life will be high.  The next morning, the assault on “the Anthill” commences, with Dax personally leading the men through a horrific barrage of shells and machine gun fire; the effort proves futile, with most of the first wave killed or wounded without gaining much ground towards the goal, and the second wave refusing to join the attack.  A desperate Mireau, watching the battle from behind the lines, attempts to order his artillery commander to fire on the reluctant men; the officer refuses to comply without written orders, further enraging the general.  Meanwhile, despite Dax’s attempts to rally the men, the onslaught of German resistance proves too much and the surviving troops fall back, putting an end to the mission.  Mireau is furious, accusing his men of cowardice and mutiny; he demands punishment for the failure of the mission, and orders that each of the three company commanders choose a man to be court-martialed and executed for treason, as an example to the rest.  Colonel Dax is appalled, and volunteers to defend the three soldiers in the proceedings against them; a skilled lawyer in civilian life, he is frustrated in his efforts by the court’s disregard for the men’s legal rights and its refusal to hear any mitigating evidence on their behalf.  Despite Dax’s vehement objections and impassioned pleas, the men are found  guilty and sentenced to die by firing squad.  Dax makes a last ditch effort to save the doomed soldiers, bringing evidence to General Broulard about Mireau’s thwarted attempt to fire on his own army; nevertheless, the execution proceeds as scheduled, and afterwards, when he orders an investigation into Mireau’s actions, Broulard offers Dax the disgraced general’s command, believing that he has been angling for the job all along.  The disgusted Dax refuses the promotion, admonishing the wily Broulard for his manipulative role in the whole tragic affair.  Leaving the headquarters, he overhears the soldiers singing along with a young German girl in a pub, and resolves to let them enjoy their brief respite for a short while longer before ordering them, as he must, back to the nightmare of the trenches.

The film’s taut and eloquent screenplay was credited to Kubrick and Calder Willingham, along with noted “pulp” fiction author Jim Thompson; in reality, most of the script was written by the latter two men, though the director took equal credit for his supervisory contributions- a sign of his frequently- noted desire for complete control of his films.  Needless to say, perhaps, the stridently anti-establishment sentiment of the story, combined with its indictment of power and patriotism as a mask for self-promotion and exploitation, generated much controversy in the political environment of the mid-1950s Eisenhower era; despite its setting within the French military, Paths of Glory was decried as un-American and doubtless seen as an example of Communist influence in the Hollywood film industry by the remaining proponents of McCarthyism.  Indeed, actor Douglas was vilified in the press during the production of the film for his involvement in such a project, though he remained unwavering in his dedication to it.  He was not alone in his confidence, either.  Though Kubrick himself had planned, for box office purposes, to compromise the story by changing its ending to a happy one, he was persuaded to keep to the novel’s original, bitter conclusion; when the studio balked at the depressing finale of the script and demanded the proposed happy ending instead, producer Harris resubmitted the original version without changes under the somewhat cynical assumption that nobody would bother to re-read it. He was right, and after the film’s completion the studio execs were so impressed with the final product that they agreed to release it without alteration.  The relative lack of significant opposition for Paths of Glory might have been a sign of the times- after all, another film with a strong anti-war message, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, was one of the year’s big hits, even winning multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture- and despite its relatively humble box office showing, it certainly made an impact on viewers, paving the way for a coming decade in which movies would take critical attitudes towards the accepted establishment to a new level.

Whether or not Paths of Glory captured the public, it quickly became a darling of the reviewers.  Praise for the film was almost universal, with critics expressing particular admiration for its unvarnished portrayal of the realities of warfare and its stark black-and-white cinematography.  Decades later, it is easy to look at Kubrick’s work here and recognize his familiar style, developed to mastery even at this early stage in his career.  The lauded cinematography (executed by George Krause) bears the hallmark of the director’s fondness for natural lighting, capturing the harsh glare of the uncovered bulbs in the trenches, the cold and hazy sunlight of the battlefield, and the heavy diffusion of the enormous palace interior with a palpable aura of tangibility; the relentless but deliberate mobility of the camera, including the classic and influential reverse tracking shot of Colonel Dax moving through the trenches on the morning of the fateful attack, prefigures future use of the same techniques in such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, to name but two notable examples; the thematic motif of a story in which human endeavor is destined to fail because of inherent flaws in the character of its participants, and the shrewdly observational approach to revealing these flaws through the cool detachment of the empirical camera, is classic Kubrick, a thread which weaves its way through every film in the director’s canon; the unmistakable framing and shot composition, the triangulated relationships, the photographer’s fascination with capturing the human face in its myriad expressions of emotion- all these things and more are present in Paths of Glory, bearing witness to the concrete vision this then-youthful genius had already created for himself.  Already established, as well, was his penchant for demanding absolute control and his sometimes excruciating perfectionism.  His insistence on getting every frame of the movie exactly as he wished resulted in numerous confrontations and difficulties on the set, including a notorious incident in which, after 17 takes of a scene with Adolphe Menjou, the veteran actor exploded with rage and frustration at the director and ferociously derided the younger man’s inexperience at working with performers, in front of the full cast and crew of the film; after patiently allowing Menjou to expend his fury, Kubrick quietly called for another take.  It was but a foreshadowing of the kind of troublesome relations with collaborators for which he would be known throughout his career, but his exacting methods resulted, undeniably, in a legacy of masterpieces that continue to influence and inspire filmmakers- and dazzle audiences- to this day.

Though Kubrick deservedly takes the lion’s share of credit for the excellence of Paths of Glory, note must be taken of the fine contributions of the others involved.  To begin with, as noted, the screenplay is a well-crafted, tight piece of cinematic storytelling, peeling away expectation and cliché to reveal the unscrupulous, the cowardly, the vindictive, and the opportunistic qualities of its characters in an unrelenting portrait of war and its tendency to bring out the worst of human behavior.  Justice and compassion are thrown aside in favor of maintaining the status quo, ostensibly deep loyalties and ethics are forsaken at the first hint of personal consequence, and humanity is disregarded in the face of the ego-driven politics of the established social order.  The disparity between classes and ranks allows the free reign of corruption at all levels, and any trace of nobility or true honor is presumed to be just another pose adopted for the sake of gaining leverage in the quest for personal advancement.  Kubrick’s level of involvement in the writing of the screenplay is uncertain to me, but the majority of actual text was composed by Willingham and Thomas, both of whom would work with the director again despite his having downplayed their contributions here; these men have since justly earned proper recognition for this and many other projects, and each of them left the clear imprint of their particular style on Paths of Glory, helping to define its distinctive flavor of gritty humanism and undeniably playing an immeasurable part in making it the instant classic it became.

The cast, too, deserves a nod of appreciation, and not just for enduring their director’s tyrannical methods or the grueling conditions of the film shoot.  Kirk Douglas, who was then a top star, fresh from his acclaimed performance as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life, helped Kubrick on his road to greatness with his support for this project (he would later be instrumental in getting the filmmaker hired to replace Anthony Mann as the director of Spartacus, a movie which would further cement his reputation and his status as a power player in the industry, and though the two would ultimately fall out during the making of this latter epic, Douglas has remained staunch in his admiration for Kubrick’s abilities as an artist).  The actor may have suffered some backlash for his involvement, but it was well worth it in terms of his long-term reputation; his performance as Colonel Dax is widely considered one of his finest pieces of work, a passionate, intelligent, and utterly convincing portrait of a decent man in the midst of madness, and he not only gives us a hero with whom we can place our sympathies, he serves as a much-needed reminder that even in a nest of vipers, men of quality can still exist.  As for Adolphe Menjou, outbursts on the set notwithstanding, he gives the performance of his long career as General Broulard, hiding his ruthless Machiavellian machinations behind the smiling pleasantries of good manners in a way that makes it clear how much he enjoys being the master of the game; he is the film’s true villain, untouchable in his power and utterly without scruples, the picture of self-serving bureaucracy and elitist entitlement.  George Macready is equally loathsome as Mireau, another species of political opportunist, whose greedy ambition makes him an easy target for the manipulations of men like Broulard, and whose thirst for power- probably stoked by decades of forced subservience- allows him to rationalize the most appalling decisions in pursuit of his personal glory, but also makes him prone to grievous errors in judgment which will ultimately prove to be his downfall; Macready, sporting a facial scar as a constant reminder that he has undoubtedly earned his position (and that he is, in fact, a product of the military system in which he has likely spent his entire adult life), is every inch the blustery martinet, but there is something about the desperation of his manner that makes us almost- but not quite- feel sorry for him.  Also memorable is Wayne Morris, as a drunken lieutenant who abuses his position to eliminate a subordinate that threatens his security (and his conscience); as the three condemned men, Ralph Meeker, Joseph Turkel, and Timothy Carey offer compelling examples of differing attitudes in the face of death, each of them representing aspects of humanity that defy easy judgment; Richard Anderson (later a familiar face of ‘70s television as Oscar Goldman, the handler of both The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman) is quietly superb as Mireau’s assistant, an officiously sycophantic administrator who relishes his opportunity to shine as the prosecutor in the court-martial of the accused mutineers, but who gives us, in his final scenes, more than a hint that the moral implications of his actions may be a heavier burden to bear than he had anticipated; and Susanne Christian (who would soon after become Mrs. Stanley Kubrick, a role which she would fill for the rest of the director’s life) is lovely and heartbreaking as the German singer, presumably a prisoner in the French-occupied town surrounding the military headquarters, who captures the hearts and souls of her unruly audience as she is forced to entertain them in the pub during the film’s final scene.

Paths of Glory is one of those flawless pieces of filmmaking that reminds us of just how good the medium of cinema can be.  It is- and has been from almost the moment of its release- a textbook example of great film technique, and its deeply compelling story makes it a riveting experience even for those with little interest in the technical side of the art form.  Director Steven Spielberg is one of many who has claimed it as a favorite film, and its plotline and themes have been borrowed or provided inspiration for countless other works over the years, from an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles to a song by Faith No More.  Its status as a true masterpiece is so unquestionable that it tends, sometimes, to be forgotten in discussions of great filmmaking simply because it is such an obvious example.  In truth, though Kubrick’s later, more high-profile works have often been the subject of disagreement and controversy among scholars and critics, this early gem is almost always regarded with reverence by even the director’s most vehement detractors.  If you’ve never seen it, what are you waiting for?  It’s one of only a few films that I can confidently recommend, without qualification, to anyone; whether you are an avid movie buff or a casual entertainment seeker, you are bound to find yourself enthralled by this powerful little movie, and even those with a short attention span can rest assured that, at a fast-moving 88 minutes, it will have no trouble keeping their interest.  It’s a timeless classic, as powerful and riveting today as it was over a half-century ago, proving the words uttered by its star, Kirk Douglas, barely a decade after its release, to have been absolutely prophetic: “There’s a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don’t have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now.”  You were right, Kirk.  I know it, too.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050825/

Lincoln (2012)

 

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Lincoln, the long-awaited feature by director Steven Spielberg about the efforts of Abraham Lincoln (and his cabinet) to ensure the passage of a constitutional amendment making slavery illegal in the United States.  Starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th American president, with a host of high caliber actors in supporting roles and a screenplay by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, it was the culmination of more than ten years of development and production; released in the wake of a divisive election in a polarized nation, its timing has no doubt contributed significantly to the general acclaim it has so far received from both the critics and the public, helping to make it Spielberg’s best-received film in over a decade.

Inspired by and partly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the film’s plot confines itself to the last four months of Lincoln’s life, when he undertook to force the passage of the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives before the end of the Civil War.  With the opposition party firmly against the proposed law, and his own side sharply divided, it’s a seemingly uphill battle, and his cabinet, staff, and advisors urge him to wait until the start of the new term, when the congressional numbers will be in his favor; but the savvy Lincoln knows that once the war is ended, support for the cause will diminish.  Therefore he sets his administration to the task of securing the necessary votes- by whatever political means necessary- to approve the amendment in congress before the window of opportunity is closed.  With his attention focused on this objective, he must also cope with pressures in his private life- the ongoing grief over the death of his middle son, his strained relationship with his eldest son Robert, and the emotional fragility and possible mental instability of his wife Mary.  These various situations play out against the backdrop of a volatile and still-rustic Washington D.C., where murky back-room deals, political maneuvering, and ethical compromises are clearly seen to have been as much a daily routine as they are in the modern world.  It won’t be giving anything away to say that the amendment passes, in the end; but the road to that political victory is a fascinating and enlightening one, and thanks to Spielberg’s masterful direction and Kushner’s highly intelligent script, the journey keeps us as engaged and invested as if we didn’t know where it was taking us.  The film ends, predictably enough, with the death of the president on the morning after he is shot at Ford’s Theatre, but it serves more as a tragic coda than as the culmination of the story- which is less about the man himself than it is about the road to what is arguably his greatest achievement.

The fact that Lincoln is an important American film is self-evident (if you’ll pardon the expression).  It is the first serious big screen attempt to focus on any part of the great man’s life in over 70 years (since Abe Lincoln in Illinois, a 1940 adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s biographical Broadway play of the same name, with Raymond Massey reprising his stage role), and therefore the first film to address the key subject of his abolition of slavery from a post-Civil-Rights-Era perspective; additionally, it focuses on political and social issues with distinct reverberations in the modern U.S., in particular evoking parallels with contemporary congressional partisanship as well as with the currently ongoing struggle towards recognition of equal rights for the gay and lesbian community.  The brilliance of Tony Kushner’s screenplay lies in its ability to strike these chords without forcing them on the viewer; he devotes himself entirely to the factual circumstances of his subject, focusing on the historical battle over the passage of abolition and allowing the material to raise present-day associations on its own.  He never loses sight of his primary objective, to present a fictionalized representation of historical events, but through the choices he makes about which themes to highlight and which concerns to bring to the forefront, he makes clear the connections between those events and their modern-day counterparts, as well as inviting reflection on the modern state of race relations in America- both how far we’ve come, and how far we have still to go.  Likewise, he brings his dramatist’s sense of practical storytelling to the daunting task of painting a portrait of the title character, a towering and near-mythic figure not just in American political history but in the cultural imagination of the entire world; working from contemporaneous accounts of Lincoln, the man, Kushner endeavors to give us a human being instead of a larger-than-life icon, avoiding the temptation to include recreations of famous speeches or historic moments and offering a vision of a man striving to measure up to his role in a larger history of which he is all too aware.  We see Lincoln’s confidence, determination, and ethical fiber, but we also see his self-doubt, his insecurity, and his difficulty overcoming the strains on his relationship with his family; if at times he seems idealized, or too good to be true, it is perhaps because our jaded modern sensibilities place his real-life actions outside of our capacity to believe in a man whose motivations seem so noble- but Kushner places strategic curtains over Lincoln’s private feelings, leaving us to speculate whether there is a gap between his personal beliefs and his political convictions, and to ponder his possible struggle to reconcile such differences.  In the end, whether idealized or not, the movie’s vision of Lincoln feels like flesh and blood, and if there is any trace of the super-human about him, it lies in his ability to see beyond the personal and short-term needs of the present in order to exert the sheer force of will needed to push the world forward towards a greater ideal.

If Kushner’s vision of Lincoln works- and it does- an equal share of credit must go to the actor whose intimidating task it is to play him.  There could be no better choice than Daniel Day-Lewis, unquestionably one of the finest actors of his generation, whose ability to completely immerse himself in a role is legendary and whose unwavering dedication to finding the human truth of a character is the one absolutely necessary quality to personifying Lincoln.  With it, he is able to maneuver past the pitfalls inherent in playing such a revered figure, concentrating on the immediacy of each moment and capturing the emotional realities that help us reach across a century and a half to connect with a man who exists for most if us only as an exalted image in our cultural consciousness.  Day-Lewis plays Lincoln close to the chest, governing his emotions the way a president must, even in his intimate domestic exchanges, but still letting us see the flickers of true feeling as they rise and fall; he inhabits the character so completely that we cannot help but feel we are watching the man himself, even capturing an uncanny physical resemblance to Lincoln seemingly without the use of elaborate make-up.  Perhaps best of all, he avoids the trap of dwelling in the iconic leader’s somber aspects, instead making him a charming and delightful personality, undercutting his seriousness with an obvious fondness for spinning yarns and making jokes- even off-color ones.  This trait, well-documented and deliberately written into the film, becomes Day-Lewis’ avenue into finding the lightness and the joy in his character, and allows us to like this national hero as much as we respect him.  It is a breathtakingly good performance, so much so that we almost forget it is a performance, and the actor himself disappears into the lifelike authenticity if his creation; rest assured, though, Day-Lewis is there, fully invested in yet another consummate performance that is fully worthy of the subject he portrays and making himself a strong contender for a record-breaking third Oscar for Best Leading Actor.

Though the film belongs (as it should) squarely to its star, the ensemble cast provides uniformly excellent support; every player breathes absolute life into his or her role, no matter how small, giving the entire film an authenticity as rich as the one provided by the performance at its center, and all deserve equal praise- but there are, of course, a few standouts.  Most obviously, by virtue of placement, is Sally Field, another consummate and fiercely honest performer, who is no less fully invested than her co-star, as Mary Todd Lincoln; Field is heartbreakingly real in her portrayal of the high-strung First Lady, still consumed by grief and guilt over the loss of her child, frustrated at the loss of connection in her marriage, and painfully aware- and terrified- of her own precarious mental health.   Her scenes with Day-Lewis exude both a desperate tenderness and a palpable ache, heightening the awareness of inevitable tragedy, both past and yet-to-come, that pervades the relationship, but we never get the sense the two have anything less than undying love for each other, no matter what recriminations or conflicts may arise, for better or for worse.  The film’s other primary co-star is perhaps more of a surprise; as Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican congressman whose extreme stance on abolition makes him both its greatest champion and its greatest obstacle, Tommy Lee Jones is so eminently watchable he threatens to steal the movie from its star.  Bristling with intelligence, humor and passion, armed with a barbed wit and a ready vocabulary, and exuding the masterful, confident presence of a weathered veteran of the political circus, he commands his every scene and catches us unexpectedly at every turn with his thorny blend of effortless bravado and deft understatement; it is Jones, ultimately, that provides the true heart of the film, giving contemporary audiences an access point through his character’s sensibly modern moral viewpoint- which permits him to give voice to some of the movie’s most satisfying dialogue- and thereby bringing home its most emotionally resonant moments through the personal identification we make with him.  It’s a sublime performance, every bit as impressive in its way as Day-Lewis’ work, and proof once more that this solid, likable actor deserves perhaps more recognition than he has traditionally received- Academy Award notwithstanding.

There are others: David Strathairn as Lincoln’s Secretary of State- and close friend- William Seward, James Spader as rough-edged proto-lobbyist William Bilbo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, Lee Pace as flamboyant pro-slavery Congressman Fernando Wood, Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate Vice President- and peace emissary- Alexander Stevens, Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, and a fine child performance by Gulliver McGrath as the precocious 12-year-old Tad Lincoln.  The list goes on and on, but special mention should be reserved for the great Hal Holbrook (who won an Emmy for playing Lincoln himself, back in the ’70s), adding his own particular brand of dignity to the role of Francis Preston Blair, an elderly and influential statesman- one of the founders of the Republican Party- who agrees to help Lincoln by endorsing the amendment in exchange for being allowed to attempt the brokering of a peace deal with the Confederacy.

Aside from its stellar cast, Lincoln benefits from all the blessings that come with being a first-string prestige project.  The period costumes and sets are exquisitely executed, with the patina of genuine, lived-in use that makes every frame look like a real historical photo from 1865.  This effect is aided by the extensive use of location shooting in several key areas of Virginia, where many historical buildings have been preserved and maintained, and by the muted tones achieved by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a long-time Spielberg collaborator; watching the film, one can almost smell the mustiness and imbedded cigar smoke pervading the air.  Another familiar Spielberg associate, veteran composer John Williams, provides an appropriately majestic Copland-esque score which conjures an aura of deep-rooted Americana, adding to the sense that we are watching a definitive vision of this chapter of national history.  In short, Lincoln is an example of top-notch, A-list production, containing all the exemplary elements necessary to make a fine film, contributed by seasoned professionals and awaiting the sure hand of a master director to assemble them into a finished product.

That director, of course, is Steven Spielberg, the one-time wunderkind who is now one of the most powerful and influential filmmakers in the industry, the head of his own entertainment empire, and perhaps the most publicly recognizable face of the Hollywood establishment to which he once seemed to represent the fresh alternative.  He has earned that place, without question, with several genuine classics under his belt, from the career-and-genre-defining visceral thrills of Jaws to the iconic adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark to the haunting humanity of Schindler’s List.  No one would deny his supreme gift as a technical filmmaker; he has molded the textbook styles of influences like Ford, Lean and Kurosawa together with the up-to-the-minute edgy techniques of modern cinema to create his own distinctive brand of visual storytelling, and his best work stands with that of the masters from whom he has drawn so much inspiration.  However, since his 1982 sci-fi/family film mash-up, E.T., The Extraterrestrial,” there have been many critics and audiences that have noted a tendency towards heavy-handed sentimentality in his work, not to mention a penchant for shaping his films around a personal, socio-political agenda.  To be sure, using cinematic trickery to manipulate an audience’s hearts and minds is nothing to be criticized- after all, it is the foundation upon which the art form is based- but it’s a delicate process, and when handled without careful restraint the results can be characterized as disingenuous at best, and as outright propaganda at their worst.  It can’t be denied that Spielberg sometimes gives in to the urge to turn the dial one notch too high in his effort to make an emotional point in his films, and from time to time his methods could be described as “a sledgehammer approach.”  Even his best films have been occasionally marred by this quality, though in his earlier work, admittedly, it is a tactic that served him well; in his more “serious” projects, however, it has the effect, for some, of undermining the feeling of sincerity.  Such a criticism is a matter of taste, of course, but with only a few exceptions, it applies to most of Spielberg’s post-1982 work.

Lincoln, happily, is one of those exceptions.  As if the deep integrity of his subject demanded the use of restraint, Spielberg pulls back on the emotional throttle, allowing the honest power of the script and the actors to take us where he wants us to go, and using his considerable skills to reinforce rather than to assert.  He fills the screen with a rich display of light and shadow, contrasting the somber weight of the 19th-Century environment with delicate and luminous infusions of sunshine and candlelight, using the windows with their lacy curtains to great advantage during interior scenes which evoke the powerful silent film images of such directors as Murnau and Griffith.  There are a minimum of scenes depicting the brutal horrors of the Civil War, but these brief episodes are more than sufficient to convey the nightmare that raged beneath Lincoln’s fatal presidency, constructed with the same unflinching, terrifying realism with which the director filled his WWII drama, Saving Private Ryan; and though the majority of the story unfolds through dialogue, he creates a sense of action throughout with his constantly mobile camera, and- with the help of editor Michael Kahn, yet another frequent collaborator- he keeps a tight pace which drives the movie forward and makes it feel shorter than its two-and-a-half-hour running time.  Most cinematic of all, he conveys volumes of subtext and a wealth of vital plot information through his masterful visual sense, composing eloquent shots and creating powerful montages that fill in the blanks without the need for gratuitous exposition or unwieldy language.  There are a few- just a few- moments when the “Spielberg touch” threatens to emerge; but for the most part, Lincoln is the work of a mature and self-assured director with nothing to prove- a subtle, layered, and thoughtful meditation on history, politics, and morality that never insults its audience by forcing a perspective.

There are those, undoubtedly, that will object to Lincoln for reasons of their own- personal politics, a revisionist view of history, an iconoclastic desire to deconstruct this mythic hero and expose his less attractive qualities.  If you are looking for a film that treats Abe Lincoln as anything less than a national saint, you will not find it in Spielberg’s opus.  Such a film might well have its place, and personally, I would be very interested in seeing it, but Lincoln, ultimately, is as respectful a portrait of the man as you are likely to find, despite its concerted- and largely successful- effort to humanize him.  This does not, however, mean it is somehow sugar-coated, or less than truthful; nor is it one of those “Important” Hollywood epics that reeks of smug self-satisfaction in its pious pretentiousness.  I must confess, this latter quality is what I fully expected, though I also anticipated a transcendent performance from Daniel Day-Lewis; instead, I got the pleasant surprise of experiencing a piece of elegant filmmaking that is as honest and heartfelt as it is significant- a rarity in today’s high-stakes movie industry, to say the least.  Though it may not be the greatest film ever made about American history, or even be Spielberg’s greatest film, it is a far better film than most people likely expected it to be; more importantly, it offers a cultural touchstone, a sort of celluloid monument at which we may pause to reflect upon our national identity- to which this president certainly contributed an enormous share in shaping- and connect with each other through its portrayal of a man whose achievements stand to validate our belief in the very best qualities within us all.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0443272/